Commercial technology drives the flight simulation industry, and the military is trying hard to keep up

Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC


Nowhere in the military arena is the light-speed pace of commercial electronics more keenly felt than in simulation. Without the unique demands of airborne operation to insulate it from the 18-month new product cycle of the computer industry, the military simulation community finds itself exposed to the ever-escalating power of the microprocessor to create realistic training environments.

A visitor to the community's annual technology showcase, the bustling Interservice/ Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) - to be held this year in Orlando, Florida, from 29 November-2 December - will have to look closely to see the trappings of traditional flight simulation: ironmongery, hydraulics and ranks of computers as big as soft-drink vending machines. Instead, a visitor will see aisle after aisle of vendors offering to create a convincing virtual world with little more than a high-end personal computer.

At I/ITSEC, the relentless march of the microprocessor past megahertz milestones to ever more impressive price/performance points takes on a unique reality. Each year, the virtual worlds that can be created affordably become more convincing, and the training value of simulation becomes more compelling.

Unfortunately, the military's procurement cycles cannot keep pace with product development in the commercial world, and most visitors to I/ITSEC must live with the reality that the technology they buy today will be outstripped the day after tomorrow.

Increasingly, the military's answer to this dilemma is to get out of the hardware-procurement business and leave it to the manufacturers to cope with matching the decades-long development and operational lifetimes of simulators with commercial product replacement cycles measured in months.

Two approaches are gaining favour: "buy through the prime" and "fee for service". Both largely remove from the military the dual burdens of keeping their simulators concurrent with their aircraft and keeping pace with developments in commercial electronics.

"Buy through the prime", in various guises, is a philosophy already fairly prevalent. Examples include the US Navy's F/A-18E/F programme, under which Boeing is producing both the aircraft and the training system. As a team member on the US Air Force's Lockheed Martin-led F-22 programme, Boeing is working with simulation specialist Raytheon (formerly Hughes) to develop the required suite of pilot and maintenance training devices. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin, competing to develop the US/UK Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), have included training companies in their teams.


Internationally, Lockheed Martin's exclusive teaming arrangement with simulator supplier Reflectone to provide the training system for its new C-130J transport (above) is another example of buying through the prime. So far, the UK and Italy have taken this route, with Australia electing to acquire its C-130J simulator independently, from CAE Electronics.

With an increasing number of export deals being executed commercially, rather than through traditional government-to-government channels, buying training systems through the aircraft prime contractor is gaining favour. The majority of simulators in use with international operators of the Lockheed Martin F-16, for example, were acquired from the US Air Force's supplier, Raytheon, through the US Government's foreign military sales process. That has changed. First Thomson Training & Simulation (TTS) entered the market through an agreement with the aircraft's manufacturer, then Lockheed Martin itself decided to get into the game.

Developed as a private venture, with launch orders from the UK and Australian air forces, the C-130J - unlike the F-16 - does not come with a USAF-approved training system. Hence Lockheed Martin's decision to offer the simulators as part of the aircraft package. It is an idea that is spreading. Australia's Boeing 737-based Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, to be acquired commercially from Boeing, will come with a mission simulator to be developed by British Aerospace Australia.

Most military procurements today require the aircraft prime contractor to team with a training system supplier to provide a complete package. While the system might be handed over to the customer for operation, the contractors often retain responsibility for maintaining the devices. Increasingly, this includes keeping the simulators concurrent with the aircraft as they are upgraded - a job the original manufacturers argue they are best equipped to perform.

Significant shift

Handing over the day-to-day operation of training systems to commercial contractors is nothing new for the US military. What has changed is the original manufacturer's interest in competing for that business. The US Air Force recently invited bids for its major contractor-run aircrew training system programmes, sparking some significant shifts. Notably, Lockheed Martin wrested the C-130 programme from incumbent Raytheon.

The latest long-term contracts awarded by the USAF include the requirement to upgrade existing training devices as the service moves to take advantage of advances in commercial flight simulation, principally in visual systems, instructor stations and host computers. The most urgent demand is to upgrade transport aircraft simulators to the fidelity standards enjoyed by airlines. Commercial operators have been able for several years to perform almost all pilot training in a simulator, realising cost savings and safety improvements. Now the military wants to get in on the act.

The disparity between the typical military transport simulator and the latest airline-standard device is an illustration of the challenge the world's air forces face in keeping pace with developments in technology. Add in the rapidly evolving science of networked simulation, with its potential to revolutionise the way the military trains and rehearses, and the task of staying on top of technology looks impossible.

Enter the "fee for service" approach. Basically this involves the military buying training by the hour from a contractor that owns and operates the simulators - industry invests in the equipment and has the incentive to keep simulators operational, concurrent with the aircraft and in harmony with commercial technology. It sounds idyllic, but this approach requires the military to give up its traditional role as training system owner and operator and requires industry to make a substantial investment up front in return for a long-term service contract.

The UK ventured into the fee-for-service arena under its Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the Ministry of Defence deciding that buying and operating training systems was not a core competency of the military. Plunging in, the UK has awarded PFI contracts for services ranging from initial helicopter flying training to strike aircraft synthetic training.

Various industry teams will operate schoolhouses for the Royal Air Force's BAe Hawk advanced jet trainers; Boeing Chinook, Eurocopter Puma and EH Industries Merlin medium support helicopters; and Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft; as well as the British Army's Boeing/GKN Westland WAH-64D Apache attack helicopters.

The Hawk schoolhouse, built and equipped by Reflectone UK, was the first PFI simulator centre to come on line. CAE is leading the team creating the medium support helicopter aircrew training facility, while Boeing and GKN have teamed to develop and operate multisite the Apache training system. The contract to provide Tornado GR4 simulator training at two UK locations, awarded to TTS earlier this year, is perhaps the boldest PFI venture so far as it involves frontline combat aircraft.

All of the PFI contracts involve substantial industry investment, anchored by long-term training contracts and the safety net of a buy-out option should the UK military decide it does want to own, if not operate, its own simulators. The contract values talked about are huge, hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases, but they will be realised over periods of up to 30 years. So far, the financial institutions tapped to fund the establishment of the various training centres appear satisfied that they will see a return on their investment.

The UK's example has sparked interest in PFI-style programmes in other countries, and several competitions are under way internationally call for contractor owned and operated training systems.

Daring approach


The USA's approach to fee for service has been more tentative financially, but more daring technically. The aim of the USAF's Distributed Mission Training (DMT) programme is to put the latest networked simulation technology into the hands of warfighters as quickly and cheaply as possible by using fee for service to circumvent the usual Department of Defense procurement processes.

The DMT programme was kicked off with the award of a contract to Boeing to build and operate two F-15C training centres, each equipped with four networked simulators. This year, the USAF followed up by selecting Lockheed Martin to provide F-16 mission training centres. Initially, there will be two such centres with a total of five simulators, four networked at one site. Eventually, additional F-15 and F-16 training centres, plus those to be established for other USAF aircraft under the DMT programme, will all be linked by a long-haul network which will allow geographically dispersed forces to train and rehearse together.

For the USAF, the DMT programme is a key element of its Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept, which reorganises the service into 10 aerospace expeditionary forces (AEFs), two of which are active at any one time. As the elements of each AEF will be drawn from bases throughout the USA, and across the world, the ability to train together in a virtual environment will be crucial during the work-up period.

The DMT programme is important also because it provides a mechanism for USAF training to keep pace with technological development. The service has not told Boeing and Lockheed Martin how to build their simulators, but has instead specified a training capability, or level of effectiveness. This leaves the contractors free - and should, in fact, give them an incentive - to insert the latest technology as it becomes available, both to improve training effectiveness and to reduce operating cost.


A similar approach has been demonstrated by the USAF's F-16 unit training device contract, under which manufacturer Raytheon has been allowed to incorporate each new generation of host computer/image generator introduced by supplier SGI over the production life of the programme. The capability of the devices has increased accordingly.

In another illustration of the rapid pace of commercial computer development, the simulators to be built under Lockheed Martin's DMT contract will use SGI computers, but will exceed the capabilities of the earlier unit level trainers. In fact, says the manufacturer, the DMT simulators will provide the level of capability previously associated only with massive and expensive weapon system trainers, at a fraction of the cost and in a device that can be installed and operated in a normal room, without special power or cooling.

Ultimately, the ability of military training systems to keep pace with commercial electronics technology is likely to be constrained by the need to maintain concurrency with the aircraft, which have traditionally been upgraded on cycles measured in years, and not months. But even that constraint is being tackled.

As an integral part of their JSF bids, Boeing and Lockheed Martin will be required to demonstrate how they intend to tap into the mainstream of commercial technology over the life of the aircraft to keep it up to date. This is a result of the avionics obsolescence problems the military faces with in-service aircraft - and even with designs that are in development, such as the F-22.

Recognising that, within today's diminished defence budgets, specialist military suppliers cannot hope to match the product development cycles of the commercial electronics industry, the manufacturers are structuring their JSF avionics architectures around commercial components. This presents an opportunity and a challenge: while aircraft can be updated every couple of years when a new processor generation emerges, fleetwide hardware commonality will become a thing of the past.

The answer both teams are evolving is through-life support, where production, training, maintenance and upgrading become parts of a single system that is managed by industry, leaving the military to focus on flying the aircraft. Conceptually, through-life support promises to simplify the task of inserting new technology in both the weapon system and the training system, while keeping the aircraft and the simulator concurrent

Several substantial political and industrial hurdles remain to be overcome before through-life support can become a reality, but the military simulation community, by breaking the traditional procurement mould, appears to be showing the way ahead.


Source: Flight International