The Interim Support Helicopter Tactics Course (ISHTC) trains in a flexible and targeted fidelity synthetic environment. MS&T’s Dim Jones reports.

Tucked away in corner of a hangar at RAF Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire, and sharing space with a Volunteer Gliding School, several interesting-looking light aircraft and the Station’s aircraft paint bays, is a hangar-within-a-hangar which, externally, is remarkable only in that it appears new, whereas everything else in the hangar is not. Closer inspection, however, reveals this to be the Simulator Hall of the European Defence Agency (EDA) Interim Support Helicopter Tactics Course (ISHTC), which is remarkable for a number of other reasons.

ISHTC

The ISHTC had its origins in a pact agreed in 2008 by Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, at the time Prime Minister of the UK and President of France respectively. They were concerned that a large proportion of the burden of providing helicopter support to operations in Afghanistan was falling on relatively few contributors, and that it ought to be more widely spread. Their aim was the inclusion of helicopter assets from other nations in the EU, particularly former Warsaw Pact nations which had recently become members of NATO and the EU. There were 3 obstacles to this aspiration: firstly, the helicopters in question were in a poor state of repair; secondly, those that were serviceable were not suitably equipped for operations in Afghanistan; and lastly, the experience and training of the crews was in some cases inadequate for the task.

The EDA was given the task of addressing the last of these issues but in time-honoured fashion, with few resources and minimal funding. Initial studies indicated that the best way to achieve the aim would be to institute some form of tactical training for helicopters crews which would enable them to reach a common standard and allow them to participate with confidence in multi-national operations. Funding to set up such training was provided by 3 nations – the UK, Sweden and Luxembourg - but at a level which made it clear that the training would have to be synthetic, and that its basis would have to be low-cost, ie utilising COTS technology and targeted fidelity. The UK was selected as the host nation and RAF Linton-on-Ouse was chosen as the venue, for no better reasons than its location (close to 3 international airports, with a runway of its own, and with high-speed rail links to London and the rest of Europe), and the fact that the draw-down in RAF training meant that Linton could offer domestic and technical accommodation.

Various options for the layout and type of synthetic equipment were evaluated, and it was decided that the training objectives could best be achieved by using generic cockpit and fuselage mock-ups with visual displays of sufficient scope and fidelity to provide an immersive environment, and allow the crews to achieve and maintain situational awareness in divers and rapidly-changing tactical scenarios. These ideas were validated by a Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD), and the contract to develop and run the course for a period of 2 years was awarded to Agusta-Westland in May 2011, with courseware and staff developed and provided by Alpha Aviation. The course content was developed using a ‘training gap assessment’ and this seems to have worked very well in establishing a common training level. With such a wide range of trainees from different countries and helicopter types, it is assumed that all trainees are competent and current aircrew within their own nation and on their own aircraft. The ISHTC is therefore not a flying skills course but concentrates on the theory and practical aspects of tactical training focusing on judgemental training, decision making and captaincy. The course runs for 3 weeks, the first week being devoted to groundschool and the remainder to flying exercises. The first course started in January 2012, and I attended the final day of No 12 Course, 12 aircrew from Slovenia. Crew composition (pilots and rear-crew) is always from a single nation, but a course may be composed of crews from different nations, which can be a positive, in that it encourages the use of a single language – English.

Cockpits

The set-up comprises 2 cockpits, which can be made, by use of interchangeable instrument panels, to represent one of 3 types – the AW109, the AS532 Puma, and the Mi-171Sh. The size of the cockpit area is necessarily a compromise. Each cockpit is equipped with a partial visual dome with a field-of-view of 180o horizontally and 60o vertically. There is limited motion-cueing, but this is not regarded as necessary in order to achieve the required level of immersion. Each fuselage structure is equipped with 2 door-mounted guns; one has a partial visual dome, and both rear-crew members have helmet-mounted visual systems. The 2 aircraft can operate entirely independently but in the same virtual environment, and each will appear in the other’s visual field where appropriate. The visual and animation is provided by VBS2, selected because the MoD declared as part of the Defence Operational Training Capability (Air) workstrand that this SAF environment should be the default selection for all military simulation. Bohemia Interactive have been project partners of choice from the outset, based on VBS2 plug and play capability, accessibility, realism, and ease of use; furthermore, the terms of the licence to EDA allows for any third party to adapt the programme to suit the course. All the equipment is COTS: the cockpits are made by a company called Selective Fidelity Simulation (SFS); the fuselage sections are made by Virtual Simulation Systems (VSS), with helmet-mounted displays by Sony, the rear crew served weapons by LASERSHOT, and the scenario software and integration by Cursive Simulation. Permanent support is provided by Bohemia and, when required, by Cursive, SFS and VSS.

The 5 instructing staff are all ex-UK military – RAF and Army – with a blend of Support Helicopter (SH) and Attack Helicopter (AH) experience, and a combined flying time of some 25000 hours; the team also includes an ex-RAF Loadmaster with 34 years experience on rotary aircraft systems. They are all Qualified Helicopter Tactics Instructors (QHTI) or equivalent, and have extensive experience in a variety of roles, including synthetic training. The instructor stations are equipped with multiple selectable screens, and can be manned by up to 3 instructors – one or 2 to control the course helicopters and role-play the various external agencies represented in the scenario, and one to run the scenarios.

Groundschool

At the start of groundschool, each student is given an iPad through which he has access to a Moodle-based learning content management system, all the course reference material, tactical and scenario information, and an emulation of the tactical navigation and comms equipment in the aircraft; these tablets can be used during the flying exercises, if desired, and there is wi-fi throughout the training locations. The flying phase comprises 10 sorties, the first of which is a familiarisation sortie, and the remainder built on 9 tactical scenarios, using a building-block approach to improve operational awareness, reaction to threats and defensive flying. Groundschool and the early flying sorties are used to establish the general level of expertise of the students and note disparities in procedure, and the flying sorties can then be adapted to suit specific and individual requirements. These modules are made up of a significant number of combat related scenarios that include; troop insertion and extraction, defensive and tactical formation flying, convoy escort and medical evacuation tasks, and combat search and rescue missions. Wherever possible real life situations are ‘role played’ and are briefed using the standard NATO briefing formats. The final sortie is flown in a complex tactical scenario, with diverse tasks, multiple external agencies to liaise with – ground forces, tactical controllers, AWACS, supporting fast-jet, other SH and AH – and many tactical injects and unplanned tasks, just to add a little spice.

The ISHTC graduated its 100th student in January 2013 and, thus far, participants from Sweden, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, UK, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Portugal and Finland have taken part. Although it started out as a precursor to deployment to Afghanistan, the course has assumed a more general role, preparing crews for operations in support of multi-national operations in any theatre; for this reason, scenario injects are drawn from other theatres which might not be strictly appropriate to Afghanistan. One aspiration being fulfilled is the inception of a European Helicopter Tactics Instructor Course (EHTIC), which trains participants to develop and instruct their own national tactics and procedures.

At the end of the course, the graduating students are presented with a certificate and a flying suit patch, in the case of No 12 ISHTC by Lt Col Michael Becker, a German Army officer attached to the EDA. It is clear that they have enjoyed the course and have derived a great deal of benefit from it. The EDA experience is that graduates are proud to wear the patch, and that it helps to generate rapport and standardisation with other ISHTC graduates when they meet on other exercises or on operations.

By mutual consent between EDA and Agusta-Westland, the latter relinquished responsibility for the contract in January 2013, and this has been assumed temporarily by Alpha Aviation, who will shortly be bidding to retain it on a more permanent basis. The facility is not currently running at full capacity, and there is scope for utilising the excess to provide low-cost RW training in other fields – such as air ambulance and police helicopter operations – which is currently being conducted in the aircraft, at greater expense and with significant operating restrictions.

The ISHTC is complementary to EDA’s Helicopter Exercise Programme (HEP), which is a 10-year programme, funded by the 13 contributing Member States. Key elements are the Helicopter Tactics Symposium, which allows helicopter crews to share experiences, gain knowledge of the current threats they face and to discuss the tactics, techniques and procedures; and live flying exercises. Three symposia have been held to date, all in Luxembourg; to date, 5 flying exercises have been delivered since the first in 2009. Intensive preparatory work is currently under way to deliver Exercise Hot Blade 13 again in Ovar Base, Portugal. To date, 14 participatory Member States have been actively involved in these exercises, with another three sending observers. A total of 123 helicopters, 794 aircrew, and nearly 5000 support personnel have taken part.

As for the ISHTC itself, it has undoubtedly been a success story from all angles. A key element is the quality of the instructing staff and, from their perspective, the 2 vital ingredients are: firstly a sense of personal involvement in, an ownership of, the success of the project and secondly, the freedom of thought and action conferred by being unshackled from established process – both military and business. There may always be a requirement for high-end simulation, but EDA ISHTC shows that there is also clearly a place for a low-cost, targeted-fidelity, solution – and, in the current climate of budgetary constraint, it may be the only solution.