Fresh out of flight school, airborne tactics officer Lt. j.g. fleet “Beave” Lawrence has never deployed with the U.S. Navy, but de-cloaking boats and ships in the Straits of Hormuz when he takes to sea for nine months with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier strike group next year should be a case of déjà vu.

Like other Sikorsky MH-60R “Romeo” helicopter pilots and sensor operators with the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Proud Warriors HSM-72 squadron, Lawrence, a left-seat pilot in the Romeo, is practicing for the upcoming mission using a mix of live and synthetic training. But it's in the synthetic environment of a CAE-built tactical operational flight trainer (TOFT) where the Romeo's crew of three gains a full-immersion mission experience in anti-submarine warfare or anti-surface warfare in the Persian Gulf.

That experience will become increasingly lifelike under the Navy's aviation simulation master plan for 2020, which calls for progressively boosting the fidelity of individual simulators among Navy aircraft as well as the connectivity between simulators located anywhere. Rather than eliminate live aircraft training, the simulator plan is designed to cautiously and progressively increase the amount of cost-saving virtual training while maintaining enough in-aircraft practice to ensure safety.

A key element in that simulation future is the TOFT model that allows crews and groups to practice together in real time within a common scenario. For the Romeo, the TOFT includes a cockpit module, called the operational flight trainer, networked to a separate weapons tactics trainer for the sensor operator, seated in the left-rear position in the helicopter. The combined simulator is controlled by a tactics instructor at a separate workstation. On Oct. 17 Aviation Week visited the Navy's Paul Nelson helicopter training facility in Jacksonville, one of two locations with MH-60R simulators for the Atlantic Fleet, to see how the synthetic training capabilities of the Romeo and the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter fit into the Navy's larger simulation master plan. Jacksonville is one of two Navy training centers for Fire Scout pilots and sensor operators.

The 2020 simulation master plan, which went into effect last year, is designed to give the Navy the “biggest bang for the buck” in terms of virtual training that can replace live training and readiness exercises.

According to the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), the Navy as of 2012 was using simulators for 18-20% of Boeing F/A-18 Hornet training, 39% of Romeo training and 41% for Sikorsky MH-60 Sierra training. The Navy uses the Romeo primarily for anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare missions, while the Sierra is used primarily for search and rescue, medevac, utility and vertical replenishment missions.

With upgraded MH-60 Romeo and Sierra, F/A-18E and F, and EA-18G TOFTs, however, the Navy estimates it will be able to boost the virtual training ratio to approximately 50% for the MH-60 fleet, and more than 30% for the F-18s by 2020. Capt. Craig Dorrans, program manager of PMA-205 at the Naval Air Systems Command says crews for the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, the replacement for the P-3, will probably be able to perform as much as 70% of their training in a TOFT. The P-8A is based on the Boeing 737-800, allowing the military to leverage commercial simulation capabilities already developed.

Training for Fire Scout pilots is already moving to 100% synthetic training. “We're Looking at 100% simulation to train aircrew for the Fire Scout and MQ-4 Triton,” Dorrans says. “The cockpit is already separated from the aircraft. Everything that you see on the ground in the cockpit, you can simulate.”

Previously, Fire Scout pilots would train on a Northrop Grumman-built operator station and simulator at Jacksonville before going to NAS Patuxent River, Md., for one week of live MQ-8B flight training. “But all the classes were saying, this is a waste of my time because I can't tell whether you have a real [unmanned aircraft] out there or not,” says Mike Muehlbauer, simulator technical director at the Jacksonville helicopter training facility. He says more than 50 pilots, sensor operators and maintainers have graduated from the program, though the Oct. 11 graduating class of pilots did not make the trek to Patuxent for live flights. Pilots and sensor operators are typically from Romeo squadrons, although Muehlbauer says several “backseat guys” from other platforms, including the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye and Lockheed C-130 have come through the program to become drone pilots. Tactics for the Fire Scout are evolving, with the platform initially being used for surveillance, though in the future it could be used as the weapons-delivery aircraft in a flight of two with a Romeo.

The GAO says the 7-year MH-60 and F-18 simulator refresh program will cost $500 million to implement, but the Navy expects to save $119 million in training and readiness costs in 2020 alone, when all upgrades are complete and training changes are made.

Dorrans says the upgrades include “better visuals, better radar and acoustic models and improving the concurrency with the aircraft,” in addition to networking capability for higher-fidelity training scenarios. “It will allow us to take some training events which are currently conducted only in aircraft and do them in the simulators,” he says. “That results in a lower cost to the Navy for operations.” PMA-205 manages the procurement, development and fielding of training systems for aircraft operators and maintainers.

Regardless of the targets, Dorrans says it will be the fleet operators who decide which training and readiness events can be moved to the simulator once the refreshes are complete in 2020.

MH-60 upgrades slated for 2016 include improved aerodynamic models to make the simulator more closely match the feel of the aircraft, an improved simulator debriefing capability and updated ocean models for the helicopter's anti-submarine role. In 2018, Dorrans says door-gunner simulators will be added.

The Navy expects to release a request for proposal for the MH-60 simulator upgrade program in the first quarter of 2014, followed by a contract award later in the year.

East Coast crews training in Jacksonville will not have to wait that long to get a fidelity boost—a second Romeo combined flight trainer, currently being installed, will go operational early in 2014. Having two full systems will allow crews to fly in twos as they do when on their anti-submarine primary mission. The Navy today has a total of eight operational TOFTs for the Romeo: one at Jacksonville (with a second coming online early next year); three at the Naval Air Station Mayport, not far from Jacksonville; and four at NAS North Island near San Diego, supporting the Pacific fleet. Two of the TOFTs are equipped with full-motion cockpit modules, one in Mayport and one at North Island, and are typically used for the lower-time pilots. All cockpit modules have motion-capable seats that provide a feel for the vibration environment in the helicopter, if turned on. Two additional TOFTs are being built, one to be based in Japan and the other in Hawaii.

“I'm expecting a big training paradigm shift here as soon as the next Romeo comes online,” says Muehlbauer, a former Navy sensor operator for 22 years on five different platforms. “Right now when we [simulate] anti-submarine missions, we have to role-play a second aircraft controlled by an instructor at the workstation. We put a second Romeo in the visual system, flying around them; the two talk to each other.” With two TOFTs networked together however, Muehlbauer says he expects about half of the requested training missions in the future will be for Romeo crews flying with the two simulators linked together. “They'll launch as a flight of two just as they would in the real world, and they'll operate as a flight of two, with one pilot as the aircraft commander and going after it together,” he says.

“Going after it” in this case means using the Romeo's dipping sonar as well as active and passive sonobuoys to find submarines. “If you have one MH-60R out there, it's pretty easy to detect a sub,” says Cmdr. Ross Mackenzie, head of the Helicopter Maritime Strike Wing Atlantic, based in Jacksonville. “If you have two, it's almost impossible not to detect a submarine. They can't hide.” Along with the sonar and sonobuoys, the Romeo's sensor package includes a Telephonics AN/APS-147 multi-mode radar with periscope detection and a Raytheon-built multi-spectral targeting system with fused day- and nighttime (near IR) forward-looking video. Romeo crews can send images or video of ships or other threats directly to their home ship via the Hawklink datalink, or to any military participant over the Link 16 network.

“A mission we would be commonly tasked with is to go out in front of a strike group and clear the ships that are on top of the water with the radar while clearing underneath the water with the dipping sonar,” says Lt. Tim “Heels” Boyce, the right-seat pilot and aircraft commander during the Proud Warriors simulation run. During the simulator session, Boyce and Lawrence were depending heavily on their sensor operator, Petty Officer 3rd class Jacob Brown, to find, track and identify targets in the Persian Gulf using the Romeo's simulated sensor suite. Boyce says “clearing” the waters might typically involve one or two Romeos identifying vessels on the surface and two Romeos identifying threats below the surface.

Weapons choices for anti-submarine or anti-surface warfare include Mark 46 or Mark 50 torpedoes, four Hellfire missiles mounted on extended pylons, an M240 machine gun or a Gau-21 50- cal. pylon-mounted machine gun that requires installation of deck plates on the right rear side of the cabin. East Coast crews practice dipping sonar operations and weapons delivery in the TOFT, but also do a live training with submarines at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center, southwest of Nassau, Bahamas.

Ground crews practice the care and feeding of the weapons systems in a weapons-load trainer at the base, and a Romeo avionics maintenance trainer provides the 14 avionics technicians in a Romeo squadron of 12-14 helicopters with hands-on experience in normal maintenance, which includes “crypto loads” for friend or foe identification, as well as identifying and fixing the types of failures they will see when deployed. The Navy is also planning to integrate the door-gunner simulators into the Romeo and Sierra TOFTs as part of a technology insertion starting next year.

Once the individual elements have the needed fidelity, the Navy will progressively link platforms together for scenario-based training. “We want to link as many as possible F-18s to F-18s so they can fly in a section, which is two simulators together, or a division, which is four simulators together, or even more,” says Dorrans. “We're looking to network F-18 simulators to E2-D Hawkeye simulators as well, for air wing type of training. Additionally we'd like to get to the point where we can link those entities into surface units as well, then conduct fleet-level training. That goes from end to end of the training spectrum—individual training to unit-level training to air wing to fleet-level training.”

Early versions of fleet synthetic training are already underway. The Romeo TOFT recently took part in a training event with 380 participants, including F-18 and E-2 simulators, and Navy ships linked together to simulate a tactical mission before the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier strike group shipped out in August. Ships and submarines must be docked to participate.

“The leap for us is light-years ahead of where it was not even five years ago,” says Mackenzie, the maritime strike wing commander. “To have ships pier-side in Rota, Spain, and aircraft simulators in Jacksonville and Hawaii, all combined to do the same simulated mission at the same time is pretty awesome.”

The Navy also plans to add live participants into a scenario, making it a so-called live, virtual and constructive (LVC) simulation. “The next step for us after we get all simulators updated and linked and networked is to bring in the live aspect of it,” says Dorrans. “That's where we'll put a pod on an aircraft, notionally an F-18, and then that aircraft will be networked into the simulation environment, with tracks that appear in the simulator also appearing on the radar of the F-18 that is flying the live sortie.”

Dorrans says the Navy today uses a “large number” of adversary aircraft to help fighter pilots maintain proficiency. “In the future, we hope that we can reduce the number of adversary aircraft by linking in LVC elements to have high-fidelity, valuable training but at a much lower cost than today.” He says the pods must be modified to encrypt the links before live aircraft can be used in a simulation, a task that is underway. “The earliest I would see LVC coming on line would be the 2020 timeframe,” he says.

Along with flying in teams of two, Romeo pilots in Jacksonville and elsewhere will soon be able to train with a Fire Scout crew. Muehlbauer says the two MQ-8B simulators are being upgraded to emulate the MQ-8C and to gain Navy Continuous Training Environment compliance, which will allow him to connect the simulator to the network. Earning that gold seal is no simple matter, given the security concerns during a group or a cross-service simulation scenario that could include a B-2 bomber with nuclear weapons on board. “It's a very tough process to get through,” says Muehlbauer. “Not only do you have to prove on a regular basis that you can secure your own classified data, but that you're not getting everybody else's.”

While there are cost savings to be found by networking simulators together for battle scenarios, there is also value in maintaining a certain level of in-aircraft training, at least for manned aircraft. Mackenzie, an MH-60 Bravo instructor, says that although as much as 80% of training and readiness exercises for the Romeo can be theoretically be done in the simulator, “It is not our desire to complete 80% of our training in the simulator”.

“You can only feel what 'boost-off' feels like in an aircraft,” he says. “You can see the light show in the simulator but you don't know what it feels like to press on that pedal and get your leg to start shaking because you're using so much adrenaline to keep that aircraft flying. You can't fake that.”

Regarding how far the Navy can go beyond its 50% simulator training goal for the Romeo by 2020, Mackenzie was unsure. “I would hate to march toward that tipping point and go past it, and know that we've gone past it because we start killing people. That's tough. What we're doing is the right way—setting a goal and walking toward that goal cautiously and slowly.”

Muehlbauer is more pragmatic. “We're getting close to the maximum now—we have surround-sound Bose systems in the cockpit so you can get 'secondaries' now; we've got seat shakers. But obviously you're never going to get that guy to really get scared and suck it up and worry about dying in a simulator.”

For the Proud Warriors crew, with the job of identifying virtual ships in the simulated Persian Gulf on Oct. 17, the larger questions of tipping points were irrelevant—the bottom line was that the simulator was helping. “The first time Lt. Lawrence is flying over the Persian Gulf, trying to visually identify contacts, it won't feel like the first time he's using the systems,” says aircraft commander Boyce. “The button-pushing and the overall tactics won't change. Though he will have to adapt to the actual environment, and maybe a little bit more hectic traffic scenario.”

Tap on the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for a look inside the MH-60R simulator with Navy pilots in training, or go to AviationWeek.com/video

Percentage of Synthetic Training for U.S. Navy Aircraft
2012 2020
F/A-18E/F 18% 32%
EA-18G 20 34
MH-60R 39 48
MH-60S 41 49
Source: Government Accountability Office