Nearly all RAF aircraft training will be carried out using computer simulations on the ground, with real-life flying saved for wars and demonstrations of power, the head of the air force has said.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said he wanted a linked network of simulators at air and naval bases and barracks with “highly classified, ultra-realistic” synthetic environments.
This would allow war games to be recorded and paused, and allow the military to hide tactics from enemy forces, sources said. Some of the hours in simulators will contribute towards the flying hours deemed necessary to qualify as a pilot, although pilots will still have to carry out live training.
Typically a Typhoon pilot will carry out about 30 per cent of flying training hours synthetically and 70 cent of flying training live, and Wigston wants this to be reversed.
Speaking at the global air chiefs’ conference in London, he said: “I can see a future where almost all training, force generation and mission planning and rehearsal is done in a synthetic environment.”
A £36 million simulation system named Gladiator will be at initial operating capability by the end of this year. It replicates real-life scenarios, allowing US and UK aircrew to experience the same environment and threats. Pilots will be able to carry out exercises and practise tactics and procedures that would be impossible in a live environment as a result of airspace limitations, aircraft availability or security constraints.
Wigston said that while the initial focus for Gladiator had been training the Typhoon force, the RAF was investing £40 million to add training for the Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft, the MQ-9B Protector drone and the Guardian air defence control system, which will protect UK skies.
He said he also wanted to add the Royal Navy’s Type 45 air defence destroyers and other assets to the simulated environment, so they could all train together in the virtual world. Navy sources said: “People go online and fight with their friends in Call of Duty. This is like a big, complex version of that, where real airmen operate in a synthetic war without having to leave the ground. You can record and play it back, you can press pause. The enemy can’t watch what you are doing and what your tactics are.”
Wigston said the battlefield of the future would be dominated by swarming drones and uncrewed combat aircraft, and developing autonomous assets was a great technological challenge shared by all nations.
He said the RAF’s 216 drone test squadron had managed to get swarms of more than 20 ultra-low-cost drones operating together to “brilliant effect”.
“We have been focused on confusing and overwhelming adversary air defences but we are already contemplating new disruptive missions that I will leave to your imagination,” he said.
Pilots are already able to gain some qualifications by carrying out simulated training only. The number of required flying hours in real life will depend on the aircraft. RAF sources said pilots could undergo hundreds of hours of training to become combat-ready.
General Charles Brown, the US Air Force Chief of Staff, said that the US air force was good enough for yesterday and today “but not good enough for tomorrow”. He said: “If we continue on a path of incremental change . . . our advantage erodes and losing becomes a distinct possibility over the next two decades”.
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