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Virtual missions: Army pilots fly simulated operations before deployments.

The U.S. Army's aviation branch is working to make a collective simulation exercise a staple of the pre-deployment package for pilots heading to Iraq and Afghanistan. Already, the aviation training exercise is mandatory for task forces assigned to the Balkans.

For about five years, the Aviation Center at Fort Rucker. Ala., has facilitated aviation-training exercises, known as ATX, to hone task forces' war fighting and peacekeeping skills prior to their deployments. The ultimate goal of an ATX is to identify weaknesses, said officials.

ATX "is one of the steps that allows them to bring their entire task force together to meet, and work out standard operating procedures and tactics at the brigade and battalion level," said Lt. Col. Christopher Shorts, ATX division chief. The virtual exercise is best done before pilots participate in their final mission rehearsal exercise at one of the combat training centers, Shotts added.

While pilots headed to Bosnia and Kosovo automatically go through the exercise, aviation units deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan have had the option to request exercises tailored for their missions. Hectic operational schedules, however, have not allowed many to take advantage of this option.

"Some units have such tight training plans and schedules that they can't fit it in," Shotts said. "We are working with FORSCOM [U.S. Army Forces Command] right now to get the same sort of paradigm set up for Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom," as the Army already has for its Balkan deployments.

So far, the center has conducted four exercises that are focused on three different regions in Iraq. Most recently, the 18th Aviation Brigade, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., completed the exercise before it deployed in November. Shotts' group has conducted only one exercise geared toward Afghanistan, 14 for Bosnia and 10 for Kosovo.

The center anticipates three additional Iraq-specific exercises and one Afghanistan-tailored exercise in fiscal year 2005, according to Col. Lee LeBlanc, the head of the one-year old directorate of simulations at Fort Rucker.

"We know that there are deployments that are going to occur, and we are anticipating their needs," he told National Defense. "It is part of business."

Based on need and the deployment schedule, the aviation center prepares exercises with one to three months' notice, Shotts said. "We do an initial planning conference, and three months out is ideal," he explained. "One month out is a very compressed cycle, but we have done that."

Once the task force arrives at Fort Rucker for training, the exercise runs for about 10 days--two to three days for warming up in simulators and conducting combined arms, live-fire type scenarios, and six days dedicated to operations that grow in intensity, said Shotts.

First off, pilots need to become familiar with the low-fidelity fully reconfigurable experimental devices, or FREDS, because these Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-developed simulators "are not like any other aircraft anybody has flown before," Shotts said. It typically takes pilots some time to get used to them, he added. "The reconfigurable simulators can replicate, in a very generic sense, an attack, a scout, an assault or lift aircraft. The kind of aircraft you are is what your visual model looks like to the other aircraft."

The training time, however, may be shortened once Fort Rucker receives its reconfigurable, collective-training devices, or RCTDs, starting next year as part of the new Flight School XXI program (see related story). During the ATX, the center also makes use of the Army Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer--Aviation reconfigurable simulator (AVCATT-A), a collective trainer that allows aircrews to train among themselves, and also with ground troops.

During the exercise, "we have full interaction between the ground and the aviation elements, in that we bring in infantry role players," said Shotts. These participants operate the Army's semi-automated forces, which are computer-generated entities, both friendly and enemy.

Semi-automated force entities are semi-autonomous because they generally require human operators to provide planning and behaviors. For instance, they often react to contact, can do some limited route re-planning when faced with an obstacle, and can choose some actions based on their knowledge of the current situation.

"We also have ground vehicle workstations, Humvee driver stations with .50 cal.-mounted simulators on them that actually operate in a virtual environment along side the aircraft," Shotts explained. "That works out pretty well in getting the planning preparation and execution phases of a mission worked through in air-ground integration."

In an exercise preparing forces for Bosnia or Kosovo, for example, the senior trainer usually is the brigade commander, accompanied by several company commanders who will be on the ground. In this fashion, "they are actually able to work on their TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] and on how they are going to do a cordon-and-search operation, or a crowd-control mission," Shotts said.

"Typically, the ground guys that come to our aviation training exercises learn more about how aviation does business. It is a very steep learning curve for them. They go out of here with pages of notes on how they are going to employ the aviation assets." As far as the aviators are concerned, they build a strong relationship with the ground commander, he added.

"We are working towards trying to get more air-ground integration type exercises," said LeBlanc. "The Army is so busy right now, but is beginning to recognize the value added. It is a combined arms fight, but the need to do that was not as great before."

LeBlanc categorized the ATX as a mission rehearsal exercise that "is part of sustaining unit collective efficiency." The training incorporates lessons learned from the U.S. military's performance, as well as the enemy's reaction. "We try to embed how the enemy is acting. It is a significant effort, and it is pretty current," he said in an interview.

Replicating the current operational environments is the order of the day for any ATX. Those can be "anywhere from non-hostile crowds roaming around the battlefield to armed insurgents that are embedded in those crowds, or a whole tank battalion maneuvering against you," Shotts said.

In order to replicate the operational environments, ATX planners put together training-support packages, he said. "Contractors who write those spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet gathering information on what is going on in either Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan, to put together that common operational environment, so it is totally realistic," he said.

A simulated battle environment has little value without using geo-specific terrain databases, said Shotts. "We have databases for Bosnia and Kosovo that are very mature," he said. The center is trying to do the same thing with different areas in Iraq.

"The problem that we have with Iraq is that we do not always know where the units are going to deploy," he said. However, the aviation center is able to give participants an overall area orientation of Iraq. That gives them an inkling of where they can expect to be flying, he said.

The themes of the ATX run the gamut from area presence, smuggling interdiction, show of force demonstrations and police incidents to reconnaissance and surveillance operations, civil disturbances and urban missions. Troops also rehearse stability and support operations scenarios, which include crowd control, insurgent and border incident response, said Shotts.

"One of the main things they want to do is exercise their aviation critical tasks," he said. "They also want to exercise their task-force staff in the military decision making processes, [by using] theater-specific rules of engagement."

Members of the Army's safety center help evaluate the units' operations during the exercise and also provide risk management books on accidents that occurred in the theater during the last six to eight months, said Shotts.

Therefore, real-world hazards are built into selected missions, he said. Areas of emphasis are brown/white out, helicopter power management, wire hazards and unpredictable weather. To simulate these dangers, the center uses the AVCATT-A.

"The good thing about simulation is if you make a mistake, you hit wires, you crash or your aircraft gets shot down, you live to tell it to somebody else," said Shorts.

Aviation representatives and ground staff plan and synchronize the mission from a room called the white cell. That is where the "exercise is controlled and higher aviation headquarters orders are generated," said Shotts. "We typically have five to six people in the white cell that are a piece of the aviation units higher headquarters," he explained. "It is a fairly complicated affair; it gives a very realistic feel for the exercise for the player units and aviators." Commanders experience the same tempo they would on deployment.

On occasion, "we actually kick it up a notch, so that we try to overwhelm them and find the breaking points in the linkages between their staff and their companies," said Shotts. Battle command is one of the hardest elements of training, he added.

The training space for the ATX spans across two buildings: the combat aviation virtual simulation Facility, which houses mainly the FREDs, the white cell and some command and control systems, and the Aviation Warfighting Simulation Center, which houses all the brigade, battalion and company tactical operations centers and the after action review rooms. The AVCATT-A trailer is adjacent to the simulation center. All the facilities are connected through a local area network, as well as radio communications.

Situational awareness is maintained through the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below and the Maneuver Control Systems. Data from the simulation mission is processed the same way as it would be done in combat. "All the simulation information feeds into a system that provides the digital messages into those systems," Shotts said.

The "God's eye view" of the entire simulation exercise comes through a three-dimensional "stealth" viewer, which is basically a window into the virtual world.

Through this viewer, controllers monitor the exercise. Observers come either from the combat training centers or from the National Guard training support battalions, said Shotts.

"These guys are able to collect data on the exercises and, since it is a digital exercise, it can be recorded and played back," he explained. "We typically have a large group of observer controllers that watch the exercise focusing on key areas." This is how they are able to provide feedback on the exercise in the after-action review sessions. The same observer controllers will accompany the unit to its live mission rehearsal exercise. "So there is continuity and carry over of how well the unit is doing," he said.

The after-action review rooms fit 200 people. "The digital environment is very good, if you are able to record the things that your small-unit leaders are doing, or your individual pilots are doing, or your individual tank crew members are doing, you are able to see what their decisions processes are," said Shotts.

The review and the accompanying comments are recorded on a videotape. "We hand that back to the unit when they leave," he said. If some miss the training, they can at least watch the after-action review and the comments.

The total cost for a 10-day exercise is $600,000. Half of the cost comprises the unit's travel and lodging expenses, while the other half is to pay the people who run the simulations and training packages.
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Title Annotation:Flight Training
Author:Tiron, Roxana
Publication:National Defense
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1875
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