Test and Train to the Threat, or Die


No hunter is immune from “buck fever,” that nervous excitement the first time prey is spotted. In the Nevada desert in the late 1970s, the Air Force 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron — dubbed the “Red Eagles” — stood up a squadron of Soviet-origin jets in complete secrecy so that fighter pilots could see up close their prey to eliminate the “buck fever” that plagued pilots during the Vietnam air war. Today, the Department of the Air Force should simulate many of these threats to expose pilots to the most modern adversary kill chains in the world

There is an ongoing debate whether live-fly and synthetic/virtual test and training are sufficient or appropriate to meet the evolving needs of the Air Force to be ready to fight and win against any future adversary. The contentious overtures to replace live-fly sorties with training device sorties as a way to reduce operating and maintenance costs confuse the discussion of finding the right balance and relationship between the two environments. A balance exists between execution of test and training in a live-fly environment versus what must be executed in the joint simulation environment.

The Air Force is quickly approaching a point where realistic live-fly test and training focused on the simulated air-to-air threats from China and Russia are not possible. This shortfall is due in part to an inability to fund and procure high-fidelity, threat-representative targets in large enough numbers to adequately represent an adversary in a peer conflict. The joint simulation environment has the potential to deliver an operationally relevant common synthetic environment to fill the void. In simple terms, the joint simulation environment is a slew of connected networked simulators that allows for pilots of different aircraft to train together virtually. If the Air Force fails to work through this problem and continues with “business as usual,” it risks producing a force that is not combat-credible or prepared for a high-end fight. 



While live-fly sorties and the current distributed synthetic network are not capable of providing the military with an operationally relevant scenario for test and training against advanced U.S. adversaries, the joint simulation environment now provides a venue for realistic test and training. This platform was originally designed for initial operational test and evaluation of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It is expanding to incorporate platforms relevant for high-end adversarial test and training. If the departments of the Air Force and the Navy continue on their flightpath to expand joint simulation environment compatibility to current and future weapons systems, warfighters will have a common synthetic environment to fill training gaps and better prepare future airmen for combat.

Operational Test and Training Infrastructure Limitations

The Air Force has traditionally used crewed fighters, dubbed aggressors, to provide realistic live-fly training for pilots at all phases of training. However, replicating high-end threats with aggressors is no longer possible due to range size constraints, limited threat replication capability, clearance for full electromagnetic spectrum operations, and adversary collection capability. The size of U.S. military ranges is limited by a myriad of factors that are beyond the control of the Department of Defense. There is little to no opportunity for military airspace to expand beyond current boundaries due to concerns over the environment and congestion in the national airspace system.

Aerial combat — and how pilots are trained — has also changed. Before the integration of radar into modern fighters, air-to-air conflict primarily occurred within visual range (distances less than five miles). As air-to-air weapons technology advanced, those distances increased. The evolution of air-to-air weapons and sensors now means that the range from which an adversary could track and target U.S. aircraft is larger than the confines of existing range space. 

Similarly, through the first Gulf War, most air-to-ground munitions were delivered in a free-fall configuration that limited bomb release distances to approximately 10 miles or less. Now GPS-guided weapons are lighter with individual flight control surfaces, making the same range spaces inadequate for air-to-ground employment. One example is the test and training employment of the joint air-to-surface standoff missile. This cruise missile has a range that exceeds the boundaries of most ranges. During training, the weapon is programmed to fly a racetrack pattern multiple times over the same area to simulate a longer flight path en route to the target. This test is not operationally relevant or realistic. It also is indicative of a much broader issue. As the United States pivots to longer-range weapons enabled by sensors that have to look far beyond the horizon, it will be increasingly difficult to realistically simulate combat inside U.S. ranges with live weapons.

The adversary’s threat capability is also an issue that makes live testing more challenging. It is now very difficult to accurately replicate an adversary’s kill chain in both quality and quantity. The first problem, as John Christianson wrote about in these virtual pages, is replicating China’s and Russia’s electromagnetic spectrum capabilities. The second, and more pressing, issue is being able to produce enough nodes and connections to reconstruct the density and range of threats that different branches of the military require for realistic training. Modern aircraft with advanced electronic warfare capabilities (e.g., F-35, B-21, F-15EX) are not challenged by one or two simulated electromagnetic spectrum attack systems. The stressor for these platforms and pilots is when multiple complex threats are layered into an integrated air defense system. This is where Air Force test and training must be focused, and live-fly sorties no longer provide operationally realistic training scenarios.


A Virtual Solution 

The virtual solution for training has been under development for four decades. However, the architecture for these systems was designed in the 1980s. They lack the architecture and protocols to replicate China’s and Russia’s capabilities. While distributed network missions are useful for command and control exercises, the networks are unable to provide the quality of service (bandwidth and latency) to support modern aircraft integration and electronic warfare test and training.

The speed at which computer data can be passed across various distances is a significant factor. The amount of information shared between modern aircraft and the near-instantaneous requirement to fuse shared data mean that high-quality synthetic training cannot be distributed across long distances. Therefore, a single location that can better represent the way actual aircraft share data is required. The assessed latency requirement for integration and electronic warfare test and training is less than 1.5 milliseconds, and the average measured latency of current distributed networks is 55 milliseconds round-trip. 

Additionally, there is not a synthetic environment common to all connected platforms when using the current distributed network. Therefore, multiple proprietary environments and associated software are forced to integrate. Making proprietary software “talk to one another” is not something they were designed to do. As a result, virtual training quality degrades to the point of irrelevance. Distributed networks also lack an ability to allow multiple security levels to interact seamlessly across connected platforms. The current synthetic distributed network system is inadequate for providing the warfighter an operationally relevant scenario against aggressors that simulate Russian and Chinese military capabilities.

Training to the Threat

In the past, synthetic training was primarily used for basic learning objectives like takeoff/landing, emergency procedures, and single weapon system tactics, while combat-representative integrated training occurred in live-fly exercises like Red Flag conducted at the Nellis Test and Training Range. This approach is insufficient for training against simulated high-end adversaries due to the constraints of live-fly missions, along with the increasing reliance on electronic attack and an adversary’s integration of multiple domains.

This shift in warfare requires synthetic training environments to service electronic warfare and integration learning objectives. The intent is to enable warfighters to train to the tactics they will need to win in the next fight. For example, space-based electronic warfare is critical to any mission in a modern fight, but the ability to integrate in live training beyond fictional white cards with those assets is nearly impossible due to both security and authorities required for use. The joint simulation environment is required to provide warfighters a venue to learn how to integrate air and space electronic warfare beyond just reading about the capabilities. Going forward, providing warfighters with the “first 10 combat missions” — a bedrock of the success of the post-Vietnam U.S. Air Force — will require executing those missions in the joint simulation environment.

As an example, the U.S. Air Force Weapons School conducted a training resource allocation review that resulted in tailoring training missions to the venue, live or synthetic, that offered the highest fidelity for the given learning objectives. After the review, commanders determined that the synthetic training at the joint simulation environment and the Virtual Warfare Center provided both higher quality and quantity for pacing challenge air combat training and multisystem integration. Instead of training against fourth-generation aircraft replicating low-observable fifth-generation platforms, legacy surface-to-air missile systems replicating advanced air-defense missiles, and Ford pickups replicating missile systems on the live range or across antiquated distributed mission operations architecture, the students were given the opportunity to learn in high-quality synthetic venues that better provided the ability to fight with and against the multidomain kill chain. The repetition available at the joint simulation environment and Virtual Warfare Center enabled the class to execute 82 high-quality training missions in eight days prior to their capstone mission against simulated adversaries replicated by an Aegis combat system from the U.S. Navy and F-35s on the adversary side. Kill ratios improved twelve-fold compared to previous classes that were not able to train at joint simulation environment and Virtual Warfare Center, and, most importantly, student execution resulted in a win.

Tailoring training to the optimal venue by executing air combat training objectives in the Virtual Warfare Center enabled the Weapons School to focus live-fly training on flight leadership objectives that are better accomplished in the air. Learning to lead dispersed operations across thousands of miles and having the capability to rejoin fires and effects in the middle of the night at a time and place of our choosing require students to use the live-fly environment. These lessons learned were previously missed because the live training focus was on air combat training, not the tyranny of distance and flight leadership objectives. By tailoring the training to the venue with the best quality, we can more effectively and efficiently train the students to the tasks the combatant commander will expect them to lead, and win, on night one. 

Testing to the Threat

While it is difficult to flawlessly replicate real life in the synthetic environment during test execution at the highest classification levels, it is equally imperative the Air Force’s test enterprise embrace synthetic test results to achieve the most relevant and comprehensive test environment. There is a concern that testing and training, and thereby results and conclusions, will be based on faulty assumptions about an adversary’s capabilities since a perfect model might never be achieved. However, the test limitations and range restrictions already noted prevent the Air Force from creating the perfect live-fly scenario for test and evaluation. Too many organizations are waiting for the perfect modeling and simulation solution to replace live-fly sorties. The test enterprise can use synthetic environment results today to hone in on potential tactics, techniques, and procedures and then apply those specific lessons to carefully choreographed open-air missions for validation.

Comparison of open-air and synthetic missions increases confidence in both methods when they agree. Virtual test points will direct specific live-fly scenarios, which will then validate the virtual models as statistically indistinguishable from open-air testing. With both virtual and live data points updating each other, the synthetic environment results can be extrapolated to expand the total number of test runs toward an objective. This combination of live-fly and modeling and simulation will decrease an overreliance on either environment and reduce fielding time. Initially, there will continue to be a predominance of live-fly test execution. However, over time and with confidence in the synthetic environment and models, the balance will shift. Like training syllabi, the test enterprise needs to incorporate flexibility into test execution master plans.

The current efforts to expand joint simulation environment access and to upgrade the Virtual Test and Training Center for simulated training at Nellis Air Force Base are examples of using synthetic environments to sprint toward increased capability for both test and training. To achieve this state of efficient test, however, the Department of the Air Force should prioritize resources and require all models from aircraft and weapons be integrated into a joint simulation environment. The Virtual Test and Training Center requires an acquisition and programming effort that focuses the maximum amount of resources possible rather than a “peanut butter spread” across multiple different efforts. The joint simulation environment and the Virtual Test and Training Center will provide the joint force an ability to accelerate test and deliver lethality to the warfighter faster.

The operational test and training infrastructure used today rests on the decisions made post-Vietnam to provide warfighters a decisive advantage in combat. Red Flags, the Nevada Test and Training Range, and the former 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron “Red Eagles” were all resourced to elevate live-fly test and training capabilities, providing an asymmetric advantage for the U.S. Air Force for over 40 years. The investment strategy was a success, but the limitations of live test and training necessitate a rebalance to enable future success for the Department of the Air Force and Department of Defense writ large. Tailoring resources to account for the respective strengths of live-fly and joint simulation environment is a necessity to provide warfighters the luxury of realistic test and training previous airmen enjoyed. 



Col. Matthew J. Bradley is the Commander, 53d Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Col. Daniel J. Lehoski is the former Commandant of the United States Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and the incoming Commander, 53d Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Image: Photo by 2nd Lt. Andrew Fisher