A 4th generation fighter jet can cost 50,000 euro to fly per hour. That’s a lot of cash. More advanced missions are flown by four-ships. That’s 200k per flying hour. Then they need someone to fight. That means a second 4-ship: 400k.
Add air-to-air refuelling, a ground based target to drop a weapon on, chaff, flares plus some more fancy stuff and the bill is easily at 500k per hour. Some high end missions cost 1 million euro. It’s easy to see how suddenly the cost becomes quite crippling. If that training can be flown in a simulator for “mere” thousands, it is easy to understand the huge advances the synthetic world offers. So how real can it get? Simulators have limits. G-force, how a radar will actually react to jamming or chaff, difficulty in finding a target coming at you from the sun, the reality that you can die if you mess up, the big entrance door at the back of the simulator dome which means you’ll never see the hostile in your deep 6, the play of light and shadow and how it helps or hinders you in making an ID of a ground target. The list is long, so other than saving money, what can the simulator do for us?
Practice Red Flag
Well, first of all, simulators can be linked up just like any on-line game. You can fly as a linked 4-ship and your friends will be seen from your sim dome (although there are no pilots to show hand-signals etc). You can fly in close formation, refuel off a tanker (nowhere near as tricky as the real thing), and fly anywhere in the world. We used to practice Red Flag missions before going to Nevada for real just to get used to the departure and recovery procedures. You can do the same for any war zone you can imagine.
Fight against a Flanker
The biggest positive for the simulated world though is the ease of manipulation. To get a real Su-27 to fight against is tricky. To get to fight against a Flanker with no restrictions, unless in real conflict, is never going to happen. In the simulated world, a click of the mouse can plonk 4 of them (or more) wherever you want. You can give them a skill capability and let them test your tactics on their own, or you can have a second operator control them to test a specific skill if you wish.
Night flying is probably the way we would fight at the start of a war. If your squadron is training during daylight at the time (eg they are practicing dogfighting), you can keep current in certain night procedures using the sim without having to keep you engineering team in work for 20 hours. The UK has poor weather at times of the year. The simulator is used to renew instrument ratings with the examiner able to change the weather to force the pilot under test to fly the approach he wants to see. The examiner can make the weather below limits to see what actions the pilot will take when he can’t see the runway.
And now onto tactics. Simulators can be loaded with flight models of actual missiles and radar software. Tactics can be flown against smart hostiles who shoot back. Pulling the trigger and seeing a missile fly off the wing is excellent training, not least when you watch your wingman shoot. You know he has fired rather than relying on his radio calls. You can see hostile missiles flying towards you from a variety of threat systems and practise how to defeat them. Once all this flying is done, the simulator can play back what happened. A full mission can be watched on large cinema screens. Flight leads will check to make sure that what was there was actually found by his team’s radars and targeted properly. As an instructor, you can fly and then save a manoeuvre and then sit your student in the cockpit and they can watch what you did over and over again and then copy it. The demo is the same for every student.
And then the final use, the one pilots don’t like the sim for: emergency handling. As a fighter pilot, you are drilled in emergency actions for every month of your flying career. Immediate actions must be known or else you lose your privilege to fly. Fighters are the formula one of flying machines. They are at the limit of engineering. They break. We are tested hard for an hour every month with head scratching puzzles. If you don’t work out the problem fast enough, you lose the jet. It’s excellent training and certainly saved my skin on a mission over Libya when my jet had a system failure. But that’s another story.
Air Force core capabilities
There is a second element to be considered. It is easy to find out what a country has equipped its air force with. Airshows have become huge trade events with big deals announced to the media to reassure stockholders that their chosen aerospace company is doing great business. Not just airframes, but avionics and weapons. These core capabilities drive how an air force can fight. They help us build and develop tactics. We practice those tactics in vast training areas. We sometimes use encrypted radios to talk to our radar controllers and formation members, but often our communications are “in the clear”.
It is easy for the average member of the public to watch near real-time radar feeds of our fights and listen to our radio work on their computers. It takes very little to work out some of our tactics. We must be careful to keep our tactics secret. A simulator allows us to fight as we would for real, in secret. With new stealthy jets like the F-35 coming into service and the need to protect their tactical secrets, the age of the simulator is well upon us.
© 2015 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham
Featured image (top): Take flight while staying on the ground; an simulator can get as real as it gets. (Image © Elmer van Hest)