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It is an axiom of defense planning that militaries fight like they train. The better trained force has an inherent advantage over its adversary. The U.S. military has proven the value of good training in every conflict over the past 25 years. Training improvements in the late 1970s and 1980s, notably the Army’s creation of the National Training Center with its Soviet-style Opposing Force, the Air Force’s Red Flag Exercises and the Navy’s “Top Gun” school, enabled the U.S. military and its Coalition allies to dismantle the battle-hardened Iraqi Army in less than 100 hours in Operation Desert Storm. Another decade of investment in training and simulation by all the services resulted in the remarkable combined arms campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
The military also invested over the years in literally hundreds of thousands of training aids and simulators. They provide the means for more rapid and effective training of individual service personnel, small units and even large formations. Distributed simulation allows individuals and units in different locations around the world and representing all the services as well as allied and friendly forces to participate in training activities and exercises.
When the challenge shifted from the rapid defeat of hostile states’ military forces to protracted and large scale counterinsurgency and stability operations, the military’s training establishment conducted their own pivot. The Army repurposed the National Training Center and a similar facility in Germany to enable deploying brigade combat teams to practice the skills associated with these new types of operations. A special facility, the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, LA was created to provide units with the closest approximation possible of the environment and challenges they would face in Southwest Asia.
Recognizing that the demand for training and simulation support exceeded available capabilities, in 2007 the Army went even farther, creating the Warfighter Focus program to provide worldwide integrated live, virtual, and constructive training operations as well as maintenance, sustainment, instruction and other services for the Army’s 250,000 training devices and simulators. This is a remarkable collaboration between the Army primarily, but also other services and even allies, on the one hand, and a team of 65 private companies headed by Raytheon, on the other hand. The Warfighter Focus program provides support at some 400 locations worldwide and also encompasses management of major Army training centers in the United States and Europe.
The U.S. advantages in training and simulation are perishable. As the conflicts in Southwest Asia have wound down, so too has the funding for training and simulation. At the same time the U.S. military needs to pivot again, away from an emphasis on counterinsurgency and stability operations and towards high-end conflicts with extremely sophisticated threats. The U.S. military must re-establish the competencies it once held in such areas as suppression of enemy air defenses, anti-submarine warfare, amphibious operations and large-scale combined arms maneuver. It also needs to develop new simulators, training devices and ranges in such areas as electronic warfare, space warfare and cyber operations.
In addition, the military requires additional investment in next-generation simulation capabilities. Many existing systems are antiquated. In other cases, modern simulators can reduce the time and cost associated with training. As an example, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has no two seat training variant, relying instead on a highly sophisticated simulator to transition pilots to the new fifth-generation aircraft. The Full Mission Simulator is the centerpiece of pilot training. It allows for 72 percent of initial flight qualification and up to 50 percent of operational training sorties to be accomplished virtually. This is the first integrated system for training that offered the fidelity required to actually log training and readiness ‘points’ outside the actual aircraft. In addition, 95 percent of initial maintenance qualification training takes place through computer-based courses and hands-on exercises with simulators, with only 5 percent of this training taking place with the aircraft at the flight line.
Warfighter Focus and the F-35 program point the way to the future of military training and mission readiness. They will be increasingly computer-assisted if not entirely virtual and largely the responsibility of private contractors. They will also rely heavily on a set of unique bases, training facilities and ranges located primarily in the Southwest United States that must be preserved and upgraded.
As the U.S. military deals with continuing budget challenges and the need to balance quantity versus quality, there will be a natural temptation to underfund necessary investments in 21st Century training, ranges and simulation in order to preserve end strength and weapons systems. This would be a major mistake. The U.S. military became dominant in the world not because it was the largest but because it was the best equipped and best trained. Retaining that preeminent role will require significant new investments in upgrading existing training capabilities and facilities, as well as fielding new simulation systems based on advanced technologies and an increasingly sophisticated appreciation of how human beings learn.
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