It is now an axiom in the military profession that you should train as if it is certain you will be on the front lines. The U.S. Air Force and Navy learned this lesson the hard way more than fifty years ago in the skies over North Vietnam. In the early years of the Vietnam War, the United States suffered unexpected losses in air-to-air combat due largely to the lack of adequate training. In response, the Air Force and Navy completely revamped the training system, creating special air warfare schools and advanced training ranges. These innovations worked so well that by the time of Desert Storm, even new pilots were able to conduct complex missions with a high degree of proficiency and even score an impressive number of air-to-air kills.
Since then, the Department of Defense has continued to invest heavily in ensuring that training for pilots and crews is as close to the real thing as possible. This includes advanced instrumentation for training ranges and onboard systems for aircraft. Recently, the Air Force has decided to acquire the next generation in tactical training systems, the same one being acquired by the Navy. This will boost the ability of Air Force pilots to practice advanced combat maneuvers and will help ensure that both Services will be training as they will fight: together in one Joint Force.
The air war over North Vietnam initially proved a sobering experience for Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps pilots. U.S. forces suffered particularly significant losses in close-range engagements or “dogfights” where North Vietnamese pilots employed tactics designed to exploit weaknesses in U.S. strategy. Through a combination of means, including new airspace surveillance capabilities and better training, the Air Force and Navy were able to restore a favorable cost-exchange ratio over the North Vietnamese Air Force.
At the same time, as they were developing solutions to the air threat, the Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps struggled to find ways of countering the ever-improving North Vietnamese ground-based air defense systems. Most U.S. aircraft losses were due to surface-to-air weapons.
One of the key lessons learned from the air war over North Vietnam was, first, the need to prepare for the next war and, related to this point, the importance of anticipating the evolution of adversary technologies and tactics. The U.S. military spent much of the next two decades developing the capabilities to counter robust air defense systems. The results of this effort included the deployment of the E-3 AWACS, the stealthy F-117, precision-guided munitions and airborne electronic warfare.
An equally important lesson was that in order to win the next air war, the U.S. military had to train as it would fight. The Navy conducted an in-depth study in 1968, popularly called the Ault Report, which underscored the need for improved aircrew training. Among the study’s recommendations was that the Navy construct instrumented ranges to support high-fidelity simulated combat engagements and to establish an “Advanced Fighter Weapons School.”
The Navy took the Ault Report’s recommendations to heart. In response, it created in 1969 what was initially called the Naval Fighter Weapons School, popularly known as “Top Gun.” The result was a dramatic improvement in the kill ratio in Vietnam from 2:1 to 12:1. It created similar institutions to provide strike warfare and carrier early warning training. All these functions were eventually consolidated at the Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nevada.
The Air Force responded to the challenge posed by the Vietnam air war by creating the Tactical Fighter Weapons School (now the USAF Warfare Center) at the Nellis Air Force Base , also in Nevada. Nellis supports large-scale, complex air training exercises, including the well-known Red Flag and Green Flag series.
As part of their efforts to train as close to real combat scenarios as possible, both the Air Force and Navy have invested heavily in electronic and computer-based training systems. Each Service acquired systems to provide realistic, real-time air-to-air, air-to-ground, surface-to-air, and electronic warfare combat training. These systems consist of aircraft-mounted pods and ground stations. They can work on instrumented ranges, but can also provide high-fidelity training in the absence of a range anywhere in the world.
The Air Force currently employs the P5 Combat Training System (CTS). The Navy uses a different system, the Tactical Combat Training System (TCTS). Both systems are becoming obsolescent as air platforms, simulators, and computer modeling of air operations all become more sophisticated. As a result, there are limits on their abilities to conduct the kind of exercises of joint forces that would be the norm in current and future real-world conflicts.
Now, in a move that promises to significantly improve joint training with the Navy/Marine Corps, the Air Force has reportedly decided to acquire the same technology that the Navy is developing. The current Air Force training system is some 20 years old. It lacks important cybersecurity features. Moreover, it does not reflect advances that have been made in a virtual training system or in a computer-based environment, known as constructive training.
The Air Force version will be called the P6 CTS, and the Navy’s will be called the TCTS Increment II. Both will provide significant advantages compared to the current Air Force and Navy systems. With its open architecture, it will be a highly adaptable land, sea and air training system capable of integrating live, simulated and constructive modes. The system will have multi-level security for test instrumentation, allowing the most sophisticated platforms, such as the F-22 and F-35, to participate. In addition, it will expand the possibilities for training to any suitable space around the world and include the option of training with U.S allies everywhere.
The Air Force’s decision to join the Navy in acquiring the P6 CTS/TCTS Increment II makes great sense. Most significantly, it will enable all air components in the U.S. military to fight together. In addition, it opens up the possibility for close allies, such as the United Kingdom, to be included in training activities. Acquiring the P6 CTS and TCTS Increment II will also allow the U.S. military to defer some upgrades to the instrumentation of its training ranges while allowing the Air Force to avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a parallel system.