Technology has broken military training's dependence on ground-based combat ranges.

Paul Seidenman/SAN DIEGO

Air-combat manoeuvring and instrumentation (ACMI) ranges have proved valuable assets in tactical-aircrew combat training, but they have one limitation: they are surface-based. Ranges require either large areas of land, or, for overwater operations, expensive buoys or platforms to house the various systems and subsystems. In many parts of the world, however, land for new ACMI ranges is becoming scarce, and the cost of upgrading and maintaining existing sites is rising. The ideal solution is to do away with the surface surveillance elements of the training range, effectively allowing the "range box" to be in what ever airspace the pilots of the participating aircraft choose to use.

Several companies have developed such systems. In Israel, RADA and BVR have produced "rangeless debriefing systems" - in the case of BVR's EHUD product, it has been sold to India and Singapore. In the USA, Cubic Defense Systems of San Diego, has also developed a product which renders the surface infrastructure redundant.

The company started developing the ACT-R (Air Combat Training-Rangeless) system in May 1994. Two years later, it was demonstrated at the Canadian Forces' Maple Flag multi-national training exercise at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alberta.

The demonstration, which involved 51 sorties over a nine-day period, using Canadian McDonnell Douglas F-18 and US and Dutch Lockheed Martin F-16s, showed that the technology installed in ground-based training ranges can now be packaged in two wing-mounted pods. The electronics in these "smart" pods are able to record simulated weapons firings -hits and misses - for playback at an aircrew debriefing, enabling the ACT-R to create an instant training range.

Although publicly demonstrated for the first time this year, the ACT-R was first sold in June 1995, as a replacement for the US Air Force's recently de-activated overwater ACMI training range at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

Known as the Kadena Interim Training System (KITS), the $9.7 million project represents the first production variant of the ACT-R, with deployment slated for early 1997. The KITS will initially involve training scenarios for up to 24 aircraft. ACT-R technology is, however, capable of supporting up to 100. The communications range for the KITS will be 65nm (120km/h), double that of the old surface ranges.

Mike Guenther, special assistant to the president and chief executive of Cubic Defense Systems, says: "We expect that international sales will represent about 80% of ACT-R's total market between now and the year 2001-We are putting more emphasis on export opportunities. The US military is expected to do more upgrading of its existing training ranges in that timeframe. Still, we expect about 20% of sales for that period will be to the US military."

According to Guenther, export sales of the ACT-R will be an almost 50:50 split between European and Pacific Rim customers. "The ACT-R will allow these countries to conduct training anywhere they desire, while providing the same capabilities and quality of training, per hour, as a permanent ground-based system, but with far less investment in infrastructure," he says. "The portability of the ACT-R allows the training exercises to be easily moved from one base to another."


The ACT-R, Guenther points out, can be delivered for 25-35% of the cost of a typical ground-based system. He expects the first sale of the ACT-R to a non-US customer to be announced by early 1997. Meanwhile, the system's appeal to export customers has caused the US Air Force to take note of its potential savings.

Explaining why the ACT-R was chosen to replace the Kadena training range, Lt Col Gregory Kuntz, the US Air Force's programme director for air-combat-training systems, says: "We were looking at spending $12-15 million annually on operations and maintenance costs, because the Kadena range was over water. The towers used for data linkage with the aircraft and the land-based control centre were built on buoys which were constantly breaking loose, and we could not continue to pay the cost of keeping them in place."

Kuntz adds that the operation and maintenance costs of all US air-combat-training ranges are becoming vulnerable to defence-budget cuts. He argues, however, that, for the Air Force to go totally rangeless, the technology in the wing-mounted pods will have to simulate threats other than those of air-to-air. That, says Kuntz, may not be affordable until well into the first decade of the 21st century.

Today's ACT-R technology is capable of providing better training than that of ground-based ranges. Its software enables communications between the system and the pilots, so that, for example, the pilot knows without doubt if he or she has been hit. This compares with ground-based systems where communications are prone to interference, resulting in pilots continuing to remain in play because they did not get the message from supervisors on the ground that they had been "killed".

The ACT-R system's basic component is the smart pod, 4.5m long, 127mm in diameter, and weighs 54.5kg. Easily installed by two people, the pod can be mounted on the aircraft wing within 2-3min. The pod's nose holds an air-data sensor, along with the global-positioning system and datalink antenna. The pod's body houses a strap-down inertial sensor and a processor encased in avionics-grade metal to withstand the punishment of the on-wing environment.

Other pod components include a processor interface unit, an encryption bypass assembly, an AC-to-DC power supply, UHF transceiver, SHF transponder, and a data recorder.

Before mounting, the pod's software is pre-loaded with pre-selected data via a laptop or personal computer. The data includes a player identification of the user's choice, frequency assignments of the data links, and the specific types and number of weapons to be simulated.

When the pods are airborne, the pilot can trigger release at the simulated weapons, sending a signal to the pod's electronics, which immediately simulate a weapon release or fly-out. The UHF and SHF bands carry the simulated weapons fly-out data and make contact with the pod on the target aircraft. If the pod on the target aircraft records a hit, a synthesised voice will tell the pilot of that aircraft that he or she has been hit. The pilot who fired the simulated weapon will, in turn, be informed that he or she scored a hit or miss. At the conclusion of the exercise, all the acquired data recorded by the pod is downloaded via a data-transfer device and cable to a personal or laptop computer. It is then fed into a display unit equipped with a 400mm colour monitor.

Other equipment used for displaying the training exercise is an Intel Pentium-class personal-computer server unit, a Silicon Graphics Onyx Reality Engine graphics workstation, a studio-quality 8mm tape editing unit, and two 400mm monitors connected to the graphics. The latter is also connected to one or two 890mm monitors. An option for a 1.22m x 0.92m display screen is also included.


The components for the debrief can be put on a table top, turning any available room into an instant theatre for a post-training exercise review. The display units are also small enough to be packed into a single transit case for shipment in the back of a van or small truck.

"For Maple Flag, we packed the display units into a Cessna 404 for shipment from San Diego to Cold Lake, which proved its ease of portability," says Jorge Ramirez, Cubic Defense Systems' director of business development for air ranges. "At Cold Lake, the entire debriefing was up and operating within 90min," he adds.

Ramirez explains that, by using computer-generated graphics and text, the display unit will replay all flight profiles performed by the pilot of the individual aircraft. "It will show all of the flight dynamics, weapons engagements, and the outcomes of each engagement. All the events can be frozen, rewound or fast-forwarded during the replay," he says.

Each aircraft and its position throughout the exercise is indicated on the display by an icon shaped like a jet fighter. During the review, the display will denote the trail, or specific path over which the aircraft flew during a 5s timeframe at any selected part of the exercise. The icons are shown as overlays on a map of where it took place.

Ted Clowes, a Cubic Defense Systems senior engineer, says that the ACT-R will also provide a more comprehensive record of data than do ground-based ranges. "Because the simulation is being generated and recorded in the air, and the information transferred by pod-to-pod datalink, we have eliminated the risk of data drop-out, which sometimes occurs with air-to-ground data transmission," he explains.

The ACT-R is a stand-alone concept, but the technology has been designed to work with current ground-based systems, making it compatible with a communication-instrumentation (CI) unit, which can be provided as an add-on.

"The CI is a ground package that can provide a training officer with a data downlink for real-time monitoring and control of the training exercise, primarily for safety reasons," says Clowes. "This has made ACT-R 'backward compatible' with conventional training ranges."

Cubic Defense Systems is counting on the technology and portability of ACT-R to continue its position as the leading supplier of air combat training ranges well into the next century. That will be a period when governments will no longer have limitless defence budgets, and the establishment of ground-based training ranges will be difficult in more countries.

Source: Flight International