Technology changes the game – air warfare edition


Strategy Page notes that (relatively) cheap virtual reality (VR) technology is revolutionizing how combat pilots are trained and made combat-ready.

New technology has made flight simulators a lot more effective and cheaper. Until a decade ago, a realistic combat flight simulator cost about as much as the aircraft it was simulating. While that did reduce the cost (per “flying” hour) of pilots practicing, it was not enough of a savings to make it practical for less wealthy countries to get these simulators and use them heavily. Thus, we had a continuation of the situation where countries could scrape together enough money to buy high performance aircraft, but not enough to pay for all that flight time needed to make their pilots good enough to face aerial opponents (especially the Americans).

The new generation of simulators cost up to a tenth of the price of the aircraft they simulate. Suddenly, countries like China can buy dozens of simulators, and give their pilots enough realistic training to make them a threat in the air, especially pilots from countries that have long spent money for lots of pilot flight time. Each of these simulators can be run about 6,000 hours a year. While a hundred hours a year in a simulator isn’t a complete replacement for a hundred hours of actual air time, it’s close enough if the training scenarios are well thought out. Add another 40-50 hours of actual air time a year and you have a competent pilot. Add another few hundred hours using consumer grade flight simulators, especially when played in groups via WiFi or fast Internet connections, and you have some deadly pilots.

The Chinese have, since the 1990s, stressed the use of PCs as a foundation for cheaper and more powerful simulators. Now they have an opportunity to really cash in on this insight and have done so. Other air forces, including the U.S. Navy, are particularly enthusiastic about the VR consumer flight simulator tech being adapted for aviator use. One reason is that the riskiest flight situations naval aviators regularly confront are night traps (landing on a carrier at night), especially those carried out in bad weather or if their aircraft has some battle damage or any sort of equipment failure that would not be much of a problem landing at an airbase.

. . .

The cheaper and more powerful simulator technology has made it possible to build simulators for larger aircraft, with larger crews. The U.S. Navy is using a P-8A (maritime patrol aircraft) full-flight simulator that can accurately replace flight training in an actual aircraft. For the last few decades, simulators have been increasingly replacing training in the air. Even the U.S. Army is using such simulators to train the crew of transport helicopters. The navy has built simulation software into its ships combat systems, allowing weapons crews to train together under realistic conditions without firing the expensive missiles they use.

Back in 2010 Israel even formed a training squadron that consisted solely of flight simulators. The eight Israeli-made simulators, each with an F-16 cockpit and all-encompassing video displays, were used to train groups of pilots in combined combat exercises. In these situations, two of the simulators are used to represent enemy aircraft. By having all the simulators in one place, communications problems would be eliminated. For several decades now, simulators participated in these joint exercises, even though each simulator would be in a different location. But this could be disrupted if there were problems with the communications link. This could either be (rarely), the link going down. More commonly, the link would slow down the signals, which meant pilots were out of sync, and the illusion of operating in the same air space was degraded. Israel is also moving all its flight simulators to one air base, both to make maintenance easier and to deal with these communications risks. As a small country, putting all the flight simulators in one place does not put a big travel burden on pilots. Pilots using this system obtain valuable skills cheaply. These new skills are tested and verified the next time the pilots go up in the actual aircraft.

With the VR headsets and current consumer-grade flight sims you can reproduce the 2010 Israeli multi-aircraft sim at a small fraction of the 2021 system cost.

There’s more at the link.

There’s one aspect of this that Strategy Page hasn’t mentioned.  It means that a country’s Internet and its computers are suddenly military targets, as well as civilian.  If an enemy can shut down an opponent’s Internet and computers, there’s suddenly no more networking, no more training, and no more wargaming.  That’s a significant tactical advantage in the short term, and a strategic advantage in the long term.  It means that electromagnetic pulse weapons and “hacker” warfare are now front-line tactics, rather than theoretical weapons.

Food for thought.



  1. Simulators 'can' replace some training, but not to the level that butt in the seat flying actually does. And yes, this does change the parameters of cyber warfare on all sides. The loss of actual flying time due to cost/acft avails/etc. has had a significant negative impact on US capabilities on all platforms.

  2. Seems like if you fly some sort of big patrol plane a simulator is even more like the real thing, since you can get up and go to the bathroom or microwave some dinner any time you want. 😁

  3. This is not surprising. Home hobbyist have been constructing some impressive simulators with multiple desktops and homebuilt cockpits.

  4. Hackers are inconsequential if the system is hard-wired in a closed loop with no outside access to it, which is dirt-simple if they're all in the same facility.

  5. The flip side is the usual gang of future politicians (buttgieg anyone?) who'll put in hundreds of hours of simulation time and get all their participation medals without flying a single mission. Simulations won't be able to recreate the actual consequences of getting screwing the pooch on a tricky landing and dying in a ball of fire. Some people will do just fine in x-box training and then freeze up when the consequences are real. I've seen it in other arenas. It's great as a supplemental training tool, but not a replacement for actual putting your butt on the line. Just my opinion.

  6. Simulators are helpful but not the same for fighters and attack missions. You have g-forces, nausea, and sometimes altitude affects that goe away with endless real flights, and lots of other things that simulators just can't truly replicate. Also like Don Curton said in his comment, people freeze up when their lives are on the line. I was an air-to-air gunnery instructor in the Navy, and I did have men just freeze up. The same happens with carrier landings. Simulators are a helpful addition, that is all.

  7. The warthog project on YouTube is s pretty cool diy simulator featuring mixed reality champagne tastes on a beer budget.

  8. The place where simulator training really shines, that no one is mentioning, are RPV's. The control inputs and interfaces are identical, and the only way to know if you are or aren't actually controlling an aircraft is verifying an incoming and outgoing data feed. Some of these "armchair warriors" running full sim "pits" with controls and layouts identical to F18s, Mirages, F-16's etc easily log hundreds of hours of stick time per year and I guarantee would be able to fly a Reaper through a garage door in real life with the proper transition training.

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