As the tempo of US Navy’s Pacific Fleet operations increases, it is deploying the latest methods and technologies to enhance and accelerate training. MS&T’s Chuck Weirauch reports.

As tensions between The People’s Republic of China and the United States are expected to continue to escalate over China’s claims to more territorial rights in the South China Sea, the Pentagon in poised to increase the number and frequency of the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigational Operations (FONOPS) and other exercises in the region. The operational pressures this action places on the Navy, and in particular the Pacific Fleet, calls for the Navy to increase its readiness to the highest levels.

Training Advancements

In response, the Navy has undergone a Service-wide restructuring and renovation of its Surface Navy training programs to correct previous deficiencies and attain this level of readiness. While a major focus has been on Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) training in part due to accidents caused by operational pressures, this training focus also encompasses training for several categories of sailors afloat.

Vice Adm. Richard Brown, former Commander of Naval Surface Forces for the Pacific Fleet, outlined the depth of this commitment to training advancements during his keynote address during the 2020 Surface Navy Association’s Annual Conference. The advancements include changes in previous training course content, as well as a major investment in new simulation and training systems and products.

“We’ve committed $3.8 billion to individual, watch-team and strike group training,” said Brown. “The enhancements to our bridge and combat information center simulators make them top of the line, and more improved trainers are still yet to come.”

In an exclusive interview, also in this issue, MS&T discussed the Navy’s latest programs for readiness and training with VADM Roy Kitchener, Commander, Naval Surface Force, US Pacific Fleet, who took Brown’s place this August after he retired. He provided a comprehensive overview of the scope of the expanded and new training initiatives for the Surface Navy.

STAVE

One program Kitchener cited that the Navy was working to “enhance and improve” was the Surface Training Advanced Training Environment (STAVE) Program of Record, which he described as the “unifying program for all surface training improvements.” The STAVE program has made significant improvement to Surface Force training and, specifically, the Mariner Skills Training Program (MSTP), which focuses on navigation, seamanship, and ship handling. Under this $716M program, the Surface Community is constructing two 110,000 square-foot Mariner Skills Training Centers (MSTC) in San Diego, CA and Norfolk, NJ to consolidate all mariner skills training in the two large fleet concentration areas under one roof. Each MSTC will have over 60 state-of-art simulators and labs to provide officers and watch teams with such training as the 6-week Officer of the Deck (Phase 1 Course, a 3-week OOD Phase 2 course, Radar Navigation, and Advanced Ship Handling. 

STAVE Courseware

Under the STAVE courseware initiative, several courses have been developed and implemented for a number of Navy specialist areas, including STAVE-CS (Combat Systems), STAVE-E (Engineering), STAVE-N (Navigation) STAVE- C5I Communications) and STAVE-LCS (Littoral Combat Ship). The STAVE learning methodology has been successful because it incorporates the blended learning approach, combining instructor-led classes with self-paced learning modules that incorporate simulation and gaming technologies.

A review of YouTube videos on the STAVE modules produced by the Navy highlights the Service’s view of the effectiveness of combining instructor-led classes, reconfigurable simulation-based training systems, hands-on labs and part-task trainers so that whole watch teams can be immersed in an immersive environment to learn tasks together. A summary of the message conveyed through these videos, some produced by the Navy Center for Surface Combat Systems, is that “the use of multiple teaching methods dramatically improves learning and student performance, as well as faster learning, improved retention and fewer mistakes.”

While little empirical training effectiveness research data has been collected to verify such conclusions, the Service has based its position on actual experiences of sailors taking much less time to qualify and certify for their tasks, with students reporting and demonstrating higher levels of courseware learning content retention.

New STAVE Contract

In July 2020, the Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) awarded the latest STAVE-related contract to Cubic Defense Systems, a $99 million, five-year, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (ID/IQ) contract to support the training procurement command’s Surface Training Immersive Gaming and Simulations (STIGS) effort and the development, delivery and total life cycle support of a new virtual environment training system. This system is to be a “key pillar” of the Navy’s STAVE initiative.

The US Navy expects to expand the use of gaming and simulation technologies for its training in the future, for example Cubic's Immersive Virtual Shipboard Environment. Image credit: Cubic Corporation.

Cubic has been involved in the development of STAVE blended learning solutions since 2013. The latest such effort is the STAVE-LCS. According to Ray Oliver, General Manager of Cubic Orlando, the company’s successful performance of the STAVE-LCS and LCS Immersive Virtual Ship Environment led to the STIGS contract award. Both programs feature the company’s Total Learning Platform that features extensive application of simulation and gaming-based technologies.

Virtual as the First Choice

According to Chris Korn, NAWCTSD Deputy Director for Surface Training Systems, the STIGS contract work will call for the inclusion of more simulation and gaming technology applications incorporated into the blended learning content of training programs developed under the contract. “The Surface Navy’s goal is to first move this effort into the STAVE Program of Record, which is to use virtual as the first choice, with mechanical training as the second choice.”

Work under the STIGS contract, for which Cubic is prime, will not be limited to courseware or other products for the LCS, although initial efforts will be geared to this combat system, with an initial focus on training for mechanical and combat systems and watchkeeping duties. The STIGS focus will be on any activity onboard ships and eventually for any class of ship as well.

Generational Fit

While empirical data on the effectiveness of the STAVE-STIGS blended learning approach is lacking at this point, it has resonated well with the younger sailors that are currently filling the ranks of the Navy, Korn reported.

“This type of training really suits this generation of sailors, and they have taken to it very well,” Korn elaborated. “And they learn very fast. It is self-paced, so they are not waiting a long time to ‘get it’. It also has been a good tool for instructors. Students get it done very shortly, and then they can move on to their next task. Once they have completed the training and have become qualified or certified, they actually know where they are supposed to go before they ever serve with their unit. It gives them a much more comfortable feeling as to where they are on the ship.”

More Navy Gaming Technology

Cubic’s Immersive Virtual Shipboard Environment (IVSE) for the LCS puts students into a photorealistic 3-D environment as it teaches various tasks in simulations of the ship’s systems. settings virtually identical to real-life scenarios. The STIGS contract is the follow-on to the IVSE. Korn anticipates that the Navy will continue to expand the use of both gaming and simulation technologies for its training in the future.

“The technology is getting more wide-spread and more used as the requirements change,” Korn summed up. “We need to train more in the virtual environment. It makes the training that much better for this and future generations – and you will see more and more of this type of training.”