Lockheed Martin hopes to begin lab tests in early 2013 of a new live virtual constructive (LVC) training system that could one day revolutionise fighter pilot training.
As aircraft sensors become more powerful and their ability to share data increases, the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps face challenges in training pilots to operate the newest generation of fighter aircraft. In many cases, there simply is not enough range space, nor adequate representation of enemy air, surface and electronic-based threats.
However, if the technology pans out as the US Department of Defence (DoD) and Lockheed hope, LVC could prove to be a powerful virtual supplement during live flying exercises.
"The [Lockheed Martin] F-22 and F-35 are the fifth-generation aspect of the requirement," says Lou Olinto, the company's business development director for training systems. "But I would say even with fourth-generation aircraft, be it the [Boeing] F-15, F/A-18, [Lockheed] F-16, this technology is increasing to a point where it's also becoming sensor intensive."
Older aircraft like the F-15 and F-16 are being upgraded with new and immensely powerful active electronically scanned array radars, says Olinto. Air forces operating such upgraded aircraft face similar challenges with training and readiness, he adds.
In order to solve those challenges, Lockheed is researching LVC to project virtual simulated air and ground threats into an aircraft cockpit from the ground. If everything works as expected, a pilot in a training exercise will see, through his sensors, what appears to be real "enemy" threats behaving in a realistic "smart" manner representative of an actual enemy.
How the virtual targets will be controlled exactly has yet to be fully fleshed out, but someone will control the "entities", says Olinto. One limitation of LVC, Olinto cautions, is that it cannot simulate visual range combat as the "enemy" is computer-generated. "The intent is never to merge with a virtual constructive entity," he says.
In spring 2013, Lockheed plans to conduct lab trials with an LVC demonstrator. An F-16 simulator using a real aircraft's operational flight programme will conduct the trial. Lockheed's team will attempt to beam LVC data into that simulator to conduct the test. By March or April 2013, Olinto says Lockheed hopes to demonstrate a number of increasingly complicated training scenarios - both air-to-air and air-to-ground - in the lab simulator.
If the lab demonstration goes as Lockheed hopes, in fall 2013, LVC will be deployed for testing in a real aircraft. As with the lab demonstration, the airborne trials will start off simple and the challenges will be ramped up gradually. A simple scenario might start off with two live aircraft intercepting a single virtual entity. A more complicated scenario might be two live jets versus four or more virtual "bandits" backed by virtual surface-to-air threats. But so long as the pilots rely on their aircraft's sensors, the enemy will be as real as any live aggressor aircraft.
If everything goes as Lockheed hopes - and the DoD purchases the system - the F-22 could be among the first aircraft to have LVC integrated. The Raptor, as a result of its unique capabilities, requires large numbers of representative targets to prosecute during training exercises. As such, there is a demand for LVC capabilities from that community, says Olinto. But because it is a fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 can act as a bridge to the F-35, which in many respects is similar.
Providing realistic combat training for what is set to be America's primary fighter is the ultimate goal. "The intent here is to develop a capability that will applicable to our F-35 pilots of the future," says Olinto.