Group Editor Marty Kauchak journeyed to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico and reports on the US Air Force MQ-1 and -9 training programs. Kauchak also examines new developments in the UAS training domain.

Unmanned aerial systems (UASs) are combat proven and are increasingly prevalent throughout the US military’s mission sets. While UASs continue to provide high profile support of operations against terrorists in the Horn of Africa and Middle East, these vehicles routinely deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data during humanitarian relief missions and are in test and evaluation to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support during ballistic missile defense events. The services’ UAS training programs and their enabling learning technologies are maturing to keep pace with the operating environment.

One USAF Perspective

The US Air Force is at cross roads with its UAS training programs, or as they like to say, their remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) training programs. The service has rapidly expanded its training infrastructure to meet the student throughput needed to provide pilot and sensor operators for the increasing number of its General Atomics’ MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper RPAs. State-of-the-art learning technologies and expert instruction from experienced operators allow new crews to report “mission ready” for assignment. At the same time, program and technology challenges loom large. The Air Force may soon need to consolidate MQ-9 training if the MQ-1 is removed from service due to budget pressures. The service must also develop its roadmap for integrating RPAs in its still-evolving distributed mission operations program and provide other technology enhancements into the program.

The Air Force and its S&T industry partners have expanded UAS student throughput the last several years to meet the insatiable demand of the US combatant commanders around the globe for Predators and Reapers. Under the 49th Wing at Holloman Air Force Base (HAFB), New Mexico, four training squadrons work together at the service’s main UAS training hub for the two vehicle fleets: the 16th Training Squadron which is responsible for delivering administrative and instructional support to MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper Formal Training Units – 6th Reconnaissance Squadron (for the Predator) and the 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons (for the Reaper).

More than 700 aspiring RPA operators graduated over the past year at the HAFB MQ-1/-9 training center of excellence, continuing the effort to increase this operating force.

Other Air Force Predator and Reaper training sites include March Air Reserve Base, California and Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, New York (MQ-9 crews), and Creech Air Force Base, Nevada (launch and recovery techniques of MQ-1/ -9 vehicles).

CAE is the prime contractor responsible for supporting the US Air Force with classroom, simulator and live flying instruction on the MQ-1 and MQ-9, in addition to performing courseware development to keep up with the ever-evolving syllabus to train RPA operators.

The cadre of CAE contract instructors bring to the classrooms, ground control stations (GCSs) and other training devices a wealth of operational experience in aviation assignments. George “Harpo” Stillman, CAE’s HAFB site manager and an MQ-9 instructor pilot, said during this author’s October 23 visit to HAFB, “Every one of the pilots I have working for me is a military veteran. We have pilots who have flown every single Air Force airplane – bomber, transport, fighter – every single one of them. Most of the sensor operators, about 98 percent of them, have experience with the RPAs operationally for the Air Force or Army. ”

CAE USA is in the second year of a five-year contract to provide the classroom, simulator, and live flying instruction, as well as courseware development and other support for Predator and Reaper training at HAFB and other service sites.

L-3 Link built and maintains the Air Force-owned MQ-1 and MQ-9 simulators, called the Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS). The PMATS devices are used by CAE instructors to deliver part of the training each Air Force RPA pilot and sensor operator receives. Approximately 25 percent of the training is academic training conducted in the classroom. The remaining 75 percent of the RPA training is divided roughly equally between the PMATS devices and live flying at the expansive range offered at HAFB

This VRSG screenshot is of a Grey Eagle entity (from MetaVR's military model library in flight over the Kismayo Somalia, region of Africa. Image credit: MetaVR.
This VRSG screenshot is of a Grey Eagle entity (from MetaVR's military model library in flight over the Kismayo Somalia, region of Africa. Image credit: MetaVR.
George Stallman, CAR's site manager at Holloman AFB, leads a team providing academic, simulator, and live saying instruction to USAF MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews at the formal training unit. Image credit: CAE
George Stallman, CAR's site manager at Holloman AFB, leads a team providing academic, simulator, and live saying instruction to USAF MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews at the formal training unit. Image credit: CAE

In 2013 L-3 Link won the recompete for the PMATS program to build additional simulators for the Air Force. The recompete contract contained transitional funding that included six one-year contract options. Jeff Schram, Link’s director of Business Development, noted his company “has been awarded contract modifications to keep fielded PMATS equipment concurrent on rapid update schedules of the MQ-1 and MQ-9 platforms.”

A2M Aviation Solutions and Sonoran Technology and Professional Services (both of Goodyear, Arizona) provide supplemental instructional support. The two companies’ instructor operators “are trained to operate the simulators from a more in-depth level of knowledge than we have as instructors. They can ‘drop in’ threats, do all the nuts-and-bolts of loading up and designing different missions, and place threats on the ground that we can end up targeting” Stillman explained. 

Stillman further emphasized that CAE’s MQ-1/ -9 instructors are “embedded” in this USAF program. “So whereas in some other flying training programs the contractors are a separate entity from the Air Force and the students show up, get their two weeks of academics from the contractors, do three or four simulator missions with the contractors, and the contractors say, ‘OK, you passed’ and then hand them over to the Air Force flying squadron, that’s not the case with the MQ-1/-9 program. CAE is involved in 100% of the training operation, and the partnership is invaluable. This is the only airframe in the Air Force that allows the contractors to fly and train the students in the Air Force airframe.” 

Elsewhere in the UAS Training Sector

Other contemporary S&T products permit UAS crews to learn and refine skills, and rehearse for missions. In one instance, MetaVR’s visual systems allow Army operators to train as they will operate in support of the warfighting commanders’ latest mission priorities – including teaming unmanned and manned aircraft on the battlefield.

MS&T has watched MetaVR solidify its position through the years as a major provider of visuals to the UAS training community. While MetaVR supports Pentagon heritage UAS programs, there are new developments to report.

The company’s visual products have been used for a number of years in UAS training simulators, mainly through the Multiple Unified Simulation Environment (MUSE)/ Air Force Synthetic Environment for Reconnaissance and Surveillance simulation system, which is used at Fort Huachuca, Arizona and other UAS training sites, and where Virtual Reality Scene Generator™ (VRSG™) provides simulated video feeds for various intelligence gathering platforms.

Garth Smith, MetaVR’s CEO and co-founder, told MS&T this October that AAI, an operating unit of Textron Systems, now uses hundreds of VRSG licenses for ongoing fielding in its embedded Shadow Crew Trainer (SCT) One System Ground Control Station and the newer Universal Ground Control System (GCS). “These licenses support embedded trainers in Hunter, Shadow T (Tactical) UAS, Aerosonde and Gray Eagle unmanned aerial systems, which are used by US Army and Army National Guard units for pre-deployment training,” Smith said. The community leader further explained the SCT is a mission-level training device that enables users to train on their specific roles, as well as team-level communication and mission rehearsal.

The One System GCS is a critical component of the TUAS system; in normal operation, the GCS is used to control the flight of the UAS and receive its telemetry. Each GCS is equipped with ruggedized PCs running Microsoft Windows using game-level graphics cards as embedded hardware for the training system.

When the system operators are not flying the actual UAS, they can fly a simulated UAS using the same hardware they use to operate the real system -- using the JTC/SIL [Joint Technology Center/System Integration Laboratory] MUSE air vehicle and datalink simulation software and MetaVR's PC-based technology. Smith pointed out “an operator does not necessarily know whether the video feed is coming from a simulator or a real camera video feed.”

Smith provided additional insights into the state-of-the art of UAS training systems, noting MetaVR provides geographic-specific detailed terrain and entity models that are used by its customers to generate both simulated video and geo-referenced still-frame imagery. “A key feature of our software is its ability to stimulate real ISR assets with our software’s real-time High Definition H.264 video generation with embedded KLV (Key-Length-Value) metadata using either EG (Engineering Guideline) 601 or MISB (Motion Imagery Standards Board) 104.5 standards. The result is that our software can generate video feeds that do not differ in format and contents from the real data feeds from autonomously manned systems.”

Trends & Technology Thrusts

There is an explosion of UASs entering the orders of battle for military services in the US and other nations. This trend provides opportunities for S&T companies to deliver greater levels of training support for these vehicles’ life cycle.

“We have had a lot of interest from European and Asian nations, recently, for example, in what we do and how we train crews,” CAE’s Stillman recalled.

Indeed, with CAE’s involvement in every aspect of USAF MQ-1/ -9 training throughout the continuum of learning, from Training, Tactics and Techniques development through flight instruction, the company expects its UAS international training portfolio to expand – beyond the instruction provided with its USAF customer on a government-to-government basis to British, French and Italian UAS operators at HAFB.

Says Stillman, “A number of companies provide UAS training devices, CAE included, and these will continue to be an important component of training programs. But a unique advantage CAE brings is that because of our close relationship with the US Air Force on the MQ-1/-9 program, we have a wealth of experience teaching RPA aircrews exactly what they are going to need to know to become mission ready and help bring RPAs to the fight.”

In the technology space, MetaVR’s Smith observed that manned-unmanned teaming is becoming an increasingly important in the way it can leverage a UAS’s camera feed at a great distance to help a helicopter pilot identify and engage targets or identify a safe route for ground troops in a Close Air Support mission, for instance.

Recently the Army chose to team the Grey Eagle UAV as an armed scout with the Boeing Apache-AH-64. “We provide the virtual environment as an embedded training component for the Universal Ground Control station that controls the Grey Eagle,” Smith pointed out, adding “These efforts recently resulted in the single largest sale in our company’s history.”

Smith further commented on another service investment in which “one of our customers built their manned unmanned teaming (MUM-T) simulation lab using our visuals for both their helicopter simulator and UAV virtual environment to facilitate interoperability and testing between the two platforms, using common 3-D terrain.” The resulting integration helped verify and enable the helicopter pilot to, among other things, steer the camera payload and set waypoints for the flight path through a protocol that was verified through the manned unmanned systems integration capability (MUSIC) demonstrations.

Link’s Schram noted future PMATS improvements will focus on improving training accuracy as it relates to sensor fidelity and networking the devices via distributed mission operations (DMO).

While DMO would certainly elevate the fidelity of MQ-1/ -9 training, this enhancement is not in the Air Force’s program of record, a HAFB unit commander pointed out during a media roundtable attended by the author.

Link also plans to further bolster its UAS portfolio in 2015 to better prepare aircrews for operational missions by investing in capabilities that enable a totally immersive training environment that will make it difficult to discern from actual flight of the platform. “Integration with the entire battle space will be the norm for training. We will continue to provide rapid updates that meet the concurrency demands of customers. These updates come as frequently as every six months,” the former Navy career aviator said, and continued, “We typically maintain several training system loads so that operators can fly the current program loaded on the air vehicles as well as programs that are about to be introduced in the field. That way the crews are fully trained and prepared when new software is delivered to their operational platforms.”

And Elsewhere at Holloman – the GAF FTC

German military units and individuals remain integrated in US, Canadian and NATO training activities throughout the US and Canada. From German Air Force instructors posted at NATO Flying Training Canada (NFTC) to that service’s instructors and students assigned to the Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, German military staffs, units and individuals, learn and refresh their skills on some of the premier training facilities in the world. The crown jewel of the German military’s training infrastructure in the US remains the German Air Force Flying Training Center (GAF FTC) at Holloman Air Force Base (HAFB), New Mexico.

Under a US-German agreement, up to 42 German Air Force (GAF) Tornados and their crews based at GAFTC may complete up to 6,800 sorties annually in regional airspace and training ranges. The training center supports three service Tornado courses: weapon systems training (about nine months); instructor course (up to five months); and fighter weapons instructor course (seven months). The GAFTC curriculum also supports the secondary mission of advanced tactical training in low-level flying and other mission sets.

German Air Force Colonel H. J. Ferkinghoff, the GAFFTC commander, provided compelling reasons the service maintains the center – even during a challenging budget climate in his home nation. At the top of the career aviator’s list, the HAFB air space and training ranges exceed those available in Germany and the rest of mainland Europe. One example finds Holloman air space (6,178 mi²) larger than the German state of Schleswig-Holstein (6,100 mi²). HAFB also allows German Tornados to be in close proximity to training events in a bilateral (with other US forces) or multinational (during Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB for instance) context. And of course there is the weather. The cloudless, idyllic October day MS&T visited the center supported the center commander’s assertion that the number of annual, weather-related, training flight cancellations at GAFTC are vastly outweighed by the number in Germany.

Beyond the enablers in the live training domain, aspiring and seasoned Tornado crews can also sharpen their skill sets in the CAE-developed Tornado Full Mission Simulator and two part-task trainers (one for the Tornado Strike version, the other for the Tornado Trainer version).

Ferkinghoff, pointed out about 30 to 35 percent of Tornado training at the center occurs in the training devices, and that percentage may grow moving forward.

For CAE, this facility is an important part of its fixed-wing (fighter) training portfolio, and an extension of CAE GmbH’s contracts to provide maintenance and support services for almost every flight simulator operated by the German Air Force.

The GAF’s other industry partner Thales, which provides four former pilots and weapons officers as instructors to support the military instructors, complements CAE’s training support services at HAFB.

The Tornado Full Mission Simulator at HAFB was most recently updated in 2009 to include an upgrade to the visual/display system (CAE Medallion 6000 and a 10-channel laser display system with higher resolution).

The Tornado training audience will further see a number of planned upgrades on the simulator through 2019, including new electronic warfare and radar systems, instructor console, and a range of other enhancements. – Marty Kauchak