ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. Navy hopes to train more competent aviators for less money, officials say, as they eye using simulators to speed the process of training the fundamentals and then focus live flying on the high-end tactics that will help them win against an adversary like China.
Rear Adm. John Meier, the commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, said Nov. 30 at the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference that simulators from the classroom setting all the way to ones on deployed aircraft carriers at sea could help keep training costs down even as the naval aviation community seeks to grow more skilled.
“We recognize that the cost to operate our business, the cost to train and develop a carrier air wing, is pretty high. And the cost per flight hour is pretty staggering, the cost to maintain our aircraft is staggering, and one of the areas that I’ve got a laser dot on is, how can we reduce some of that flying hours and increase more on the simulation side?” he said during a panel discussion with other Navy flag officers.
“I’m not talking about taking a hatchet to [live flight hours], but we’ve got to be able to shift a little bit of that. And if you think about the delta in the cost-per-hour between those two, and the high-end tactics you can do in that, that makes perfect sense.”
Meier said the newer type/model/series aircraft, including the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, rely more heavily on simulators in their training and readiness matrices. But older aircraft, including the Navy’s F/A-18E-F Super Hornet that still makes up the bulk of the fighter fleet, remain dependent on live flying hours to achieve various training and certification milestones.
“The current balance of flights to simulation today is heavily skewed in flights for most aircraft,” Meier said. He said he wouldn’t want to see simulator hours account for more than a quarter of training time, but there’s still a lot of room to shift in that direction.
“I’d be happy to move the needle one flight, quite frankly. If we could take away one flight and say on all [type/model/series] that we’re no longer flying that flight … and move that over to a simulation event, that would be a step in the right direction,” he said, adding the savings would quickly add up despite upfront costs and contractor support costs.
Meier told Defense News after the panel technology is advanced enough today that this shift could be made without sacrificing any quality in training. In fact, he said, he’d like to see a lot of the more basic — but still required — training moved to simulators to free up live flying time and funding for practicing the high-end tactics key to a future conflict.
“We are really enabling our pilots, strike fighter pilots in particular, but really how the air wing is employed, to focus more and more on high-end tactics and less on what I would refer to as the blocking and tackling, the fundamental type stuff. We want to get through that as quick as we can and spend the vast majority of our training on the high-end threat,” he said in a brief interview.
Even during deployments, he said, the air wing can shift its focus to these offensive tactics. In the past, four planes might have to fly in a training event: two to replicate an adversary force, which is less useful to those pilots, and two to rehearse actual U.S. Navy tactics. Now, through an “inject-to-live” capability that inserts simulated adversary contacts into the cockpit of a fighter jet, the Super Hornet fleet can preserve flight hours during deployments for real-world missions and for flights that increase lethality — not ones that support other pilots’ training by serving as the adversary.
During the panel, Meier used the “Red Rippers” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 11 as an example of how simulators can create a demonstrable advantage.
This squadron — which flies the two-seater F/A-18F out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia and serves in Carrier Air Wing One with the carrier Harry S. Truman — was dominant during its recent Air Wing Fallon carrier air wing training event.
Meier said that, compared to other strike fighter squadrons, VFA-11 had a kill ratio 2.5-times higher than anyone else, meaning they were killing more enemy aircraft and being killed less often during training events.
“What we found is that, pure and simple, the commanding officer and the training officer, the leadership they had for how they train to fight and win, really focused on utilizing the simulators to the maximum extent possible,” Meier said, noting the time in the simulators was overseen by the training officer and designed to practice the highest-end tactics.
“That’s somewhat a cultural issue, but we’re also trying to inculcate that now as well,” he said.
Meier told Defense News he and Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, the commander of Naval Air Forces and Naval Air Force Pacific, are looking at individual- and squadron-level training and readiness matrices on an annual basis and are in the midst of trying to insert more simulator training.
Meier also addressed another effort, called Naval Aviation Training Next, which seeks to modernize how the Navy trains its newest aviators before they join fleet squadrons.
Rear Adm. Robert Westendorff, chief of Naval Air Training, said during the same panel three pilot programs fall under this effort: Project Avenger, which kicked off in September 2020 and seeks to shorten the timeline for primary flight training for brand new aviators in the T-6 trainer; Project Hellcat, which swaps some early strike fighter maneuver training in the T-45 trainer for time in the cheaper T-6 trainer; and Project Corsair, which seeks to reduce the time spent in the T-45 before fighter pilots are ready to join a fleet squadron.
Westendorff said the Navy got good at training skillsets applicable to the global war on terrorism, “but it doesn’t translate well in many aspects to this near-peer threat that we’ll have to deal with in the future.”
Naval Aviation Training Next uses simulator technology and a syllabus that allows students to go at their own pace to create more competent pilots that can join the fleet faster, he said.
Meier, for his part, said this effort was “probably the most innovative thing that I’ve seen in the training business in a long time.”
Westendorff said several classes have graduated from the Project Avenger course now and already “we’ve had students that have blazed through primary flight training in weeks.”
In the second class of the pilot program, the average student completed the primary flight training curriculum 20% faster than the legacy syllabus would have allowed, he added.
“It’s all about, in my mind, producing a higher competency aviator to win that next conflict,” he said. “As we all know, less time spent in the training command, more time spent in the fleet learning that higher-level craft, so we’re succeeding in that. And I think we can save a few dollars as well.”
The first class of Project Hellcat kicks off Dec. 6. The idea behind this effort is to take about 10 hours of early flight time for strike pilots, where they learn very basic dynamic maneuver concepts, and conduct that training in the T-6 instead of the T-45.
“I can give them about 10 hours in the T-6, which is less than a quarter of the cost of a flight hour in a T-45,” Westendorff said.
The students would then progress to Project Corsair, which covers the 42-week strike fighter syllabus in the T-45 trainer. The first class in this pilot program is expected to begin early next year, likely in February — which means about a year from now Westendorff expects to be able to say definitively whether Naval Aviation Training Next is producing better new pilots for less time and money.
“Right now, all indications are that I’m really past the proof-of-concept phase for Project Avenger and I have data that it’s successful. In about a year, year and a half, I’ll have the data for the entire system from start to finish to ensure we’re on the right track and we are in fact sending that higher-competency aviator to the fleet.”
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs, and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.