The future of Marine aviation is complex: aircraft are growing more technologically advanced, pilots face a proliferation of high-end and low-end threats, military budgets are squeezed and demand for Navy forces around the globe is growing.
So how will Marine aviation training keep up? In part, with fielding of tech advanced simulators.
Joint Terminal Attack Controllers using the simulator can coordinate with pilots in the air to identify and mark targets for air strikes from the ground
In a feat that combined live training and simulator training, we conducted a live, virtual and constructive demo. We took equipment that’s already on the aircraft that broadcasts the aircraft’s altitude, airspeed, position in real time, and we put a transmitter or receiver unit on the top of the building. We were able to tap into that feed, and what that did was it took that feed of an actual aircraft on the range, and we piped it into simulator, and it was accurately recreated in the virtual workspace.
The aircraft is actually flying on the range and is properly displayed in the simulator with very low to minimal latency in a real-time altitude, airspeed, and attitude. So what that provided for is a real-time control of that aircraft with the ability to see the aircraft as well as have the ability to achieve visual recognition.
Marines are able to look up and actually assess the attitude and profile of that aircraft and then provide the clearance to essentially employ munitions on the desired intended target.
Before we had the simulator, we were really slow in the first few days on the range because that’s the first time operators did it. But now getting some practice time in, you get better control and better performance on the range with the live assets, so it makes it more efficient. So the simulator is really useful, it’s invaluable as far as getting Marines ready to go.
It has been harder and harder to get fleet aircraft that can support training due to a high operational tempo and due to challenges in keeping the aircraft ready to fly. The more training Marines can get on the range, the better they are when they actually get to an actual aircraft.
“So they’re not stumbling on Day 1, they’re already semi-proficient or trying to get there, whereas in the past before they had this simulator you’re a mess your first several times, so it’s good training for you, but for the guys airborne, they’re holding for a half hour just to get a bomb off because the guy on the ground is learning what to do.
The simulator has created a dramatic improvement in the first pass drop and the communications on the radio and everything. Marines work everything out here, so by the time that they’re on the range it’s just the real-life stuff that hits you. … A lot more first-pass drops, which is the whole goal of close-air support.
Want Marines will eventually be able to do is put this into a guy in a aircraft simulator and they’ll be running this simulator, talking to the guys in this simulator, and doing all their controls to get their currency requirements to satisfy their training while taking their targeting cues from other Marines in their own simulator.
A next step towards achieving that vision of connecting multiple simulators spread across the battlespace is the integrated training facility to house, all under one roof, simulators for pretty much anything in the carrier strike group.
We’ll be able to integrate them all together. Eventually we will be able to pipe in feeds from live aircraft out on our range – that’s the live part, and then vice versa hopefully we can pipe what’s being seen in the simulators, or what’s being constructed in the simulators, out to the live aircraft as well.
What we want to be able to do in the future, and this facility is the first step, is machine-to-machine data gathering. And that will allow us to gather large amounts of data – so not just necessarily how they did on that event, in the actual actions they took on that event, but we can also gather historical data on the aircraft, its system, how well the systems have held up.
We can look at, automatically, machine-to-machine, look at the pilot to assess proficiency, and see how much flight time was received recently, helping us build that bigger picture so we can inform leadership with the best information we can give them.
Despite the focus on high-end warfare technologies, aviators could face, equally dangerous less expensive threats like shoulder-launched anti-air missiles so we invested in Surface-to-Air Missile simulators to help ensure that pilots cycling through training events are aware of the threats they face on the ground and are flying with tactics that would keep them safe.
Though the SAM simulators aren’t connected to the planes in the air – so the pilot didn’t know in real-time he had been “shot” at with the simulator – the simulator logs video of the encounter. That video is incorporated into the pilot’s debrief after a training event, with the instructors explaining to the pilot whether his flight profile would have kept him safe or put him at risk to ground threats.
This is how you prove to Marines, you’re reachable, you need to be careful and you need to know what you’re doing, get your tactics right. Everything that’s out there is beatable, you’ve just got to know what you’re doing, but you’ve got to get your tactics right.
Bringing Virtual Reality Simulation Vision Closer to Meeting Marine Corps Requirements to Fight any Battle on any Terrain
While live training will always remain the standard against which Marine unit readiness is measured, even live training has its limits. It costs a lot of money to ship Marines out to Twentynine Palms or other areas. It costs money to fire munitions. Some of those munitions can’t be fired in most areas.
The Marines want simulators in which commanders can lead virtual troops.
Some of the advanced weapons can’t be demonstrated where just anyone can see them in action, thus revealing our tech to adversaries.
And that is where simulations can help bridge the gap.
But first, there’s a list of things that must come to fruition.
Much of that is going to be applications and bandwidth, basically getting better versions of terrains and simulations that are more realistic and can accommodate as much as a division’s worth of players and an equally complex, simulated adversary.
But some items are smaller and more hands-on, like better virtual reality and augmented reality headsets.
Those headsets are key since the Marines want them to work not as they do now, with pounds of cabling in bulky indoor shooting simulators but light with long-lasting batteries that can be taken in the field and on deployment.
Goggles that is about twice the weight of existing eye protection, perhaps with its power source somewhere on the body, is likely five to 10 years away based on his survey of the field.
There’s another an ongoing need: better drones.
But instead of longer flying, large-scale drones that can coordinate complex fires and sensors for the operational environment, simulations needs are smaller drones that can fly lower, giving Marines a street-level, detailed view of the battlespace.
Marines can create their own terrain maps and fight the simulated fight in the areas they’ll really be operating in.
And those video feeds that are now on every ISR platform in the real world? Simulations need them too, to be realistic. That means game designers have to have human-like activity going on in areas instead of some digital “blob” representing enemies.
That way, when a commander wants to zoom in on a tactical frame in the game, they’ll be able to do it just like in theater.
Which brings it to one of the more ambitious items beyond terrain and hardware: getting simulations to act more like humans.
As it works now, unit commanders set up their forces, work their mission sets and then the virtual “forces” collide and often a scripted scenario plays out.
Not too realistic.
What’s needed is simulations to act like populations might act in the real world and the same for the enemy, taking advantages, fighting and withdrawing.
But one step further is key: The enemy has to talk back.
When a commander finishes the fight, they should be able to query the virtual enemy and figure out why it did what it did, how it gained a certain advantage.
And it shouldn’t take a programmer to “talk” with the simulation. Units communicate via voice and chat. That’s how simulations users must be able to talk with their simulated civilians, allies and enemies, in plain language.
These pursuits are not happening in a vacuum. They were done at a battalion level with a short prep time, far different than the large-scale Marine Expeditionary Unit or Marine Expeditionary Brigade-sized training that is typical.
That is part of a larger effort to create a “plug-and-play” type of training module that any battalion, and later smaller units, can use at home station or on deployment to conduct complex, coordinated training.
What made that work new was pairing legacy systems with a variety of operating systems between them.
That’s another example of what needs to be fixed.
Marines and other services are, in many cases, using systems that were designed decades apart and creating a patchwork methods to get the hardware to work together when it wasn’t built for that type of operation.
The new systems must be open architecture so that new tech, new weapons and new terrain can be added on the fly. But also secure enough to operate across networks and not be spied upon by those who would want a peek at our tactics.
Across the infantry battalions Marines received new gear last year called Tactical Decision Kits. These allow for squad to company-sized elements to do video game-play for their unit exercises, complete with NFL-style replay of engagements and decisions.
That’s a low-level example of one thing that’s lacking in current training. Right now the main piece of tech for a Marine commander conducting an after action review is a pen and paper pad.
But with ISR drones, body cams and sensors, Marines in the near-term future should be able to monitor individual Marine’s energy and hydration levels, where they pointed their weapon, when they fired, how many rounds, if they hit their target, even where their eyes were looking while on patrol.
And, if on deployment, Marines can’t rely on a cadre of contractors back home to run their hardware. To that end, the Corps began two courses last year, the Simulation Professional Course and the Simulations Specialist Course.
Both give Marines in infantry units experience setting up simulations and running the games for their units. They input training objectives and can understand and put together training for the unit staff or just for their fire team back in the barracks.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab just finished a rapid capability assessment of a pair of goggles equipped with augmented reality that allow artillery maintainers to work on three-dimensional digital models of M777 155mm howitzers.
"I like it ... you can tell what's missing, what's broken, what's cracked. "It can't do much for me right now, but when I was back at the schoolhouse, this would have helped out a lot to actually see parts in the howitzer. I am a very visual person; looking at a schematic doesn't help me much."
"Within training, it runs the spectrum. It can be maintainer training, it can be infantry training, it can be gun-drill training. I was talking to some snipers earlier. This could be used on a sniper training range, where you have the snipers crawling through the grass trying to get within shot range and not be observed while they are doing so.
"Currently, how are they being observed -- through a telescope. You can augment that telescope, which uses the human eyeball, with the laser range finding that the goggles are capable of, to pick up variances in the terrain in order to better detect those snipers, which will make them better snipers because now they've got to beat technology.
Marine Corps and other services are focused on finding ways to use augmented reality in training.
"It seems unlikely that it's going to go away. We have Marine Corps Systems Command, interested in augmented reality ... and we have all been talking about these systems and what they are capable of."