ANALYSIS: Is it Live or is it Simulated? Only F-35 Knows for Sure

Flightglobal // February 11, 2016

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is not just one of the most expensive and complex endeavours in military acquisition history, it’s also an evolution in the way military pilots train to fly jets.

Developed during the computer networking revolution of the 2000s, everything from the way the aircraft is maintained to the way it fights is deeply interconnected, as are its “full-mission” simulators.

When a squad of F-35s fly into combat for the first time, the pilots will have already performed that exact mission against those target objectives dozens, if not hundreds, of times in simulators, replicating everything from electronic jamming to weapon effects on surface-to-air missile sites.

Not only does the F-35’s full-mission simulator provide greater fidelity than previous generations of fighter trainers, it also compensates for the fact it is too expensive to equip every test and training range with the full complement of threats it would be likely to go up against. The only places an F-35 can truly wreak havoc with every kinetic and non-kinetic tool in its beyond-visual-range arsenal, will be in the virtual simulator or in combat.

It’s not just belt-tightening that has Lightning II pilots completing 45% to 55% of their initial qualification flights in the simulator – it’s the next-generation fidelity and risk-free exposure to the full range of things that can go wrong or harm you, particularly on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Each simulator carries the most recent software load, or operational flight programme (OFP), so it can most accurately replicate the capabilities and handling qualities of the aircraft as it is concurrently developed, tested and fielded through various block upgrades.

The simulators arrive in groups of two or four, and will all eventually be plugged into the vast network of American and allied training simulators at air bases and training centres around the world, bringing F-35s into the same virtual environment as F-16s, F-15s, Boeing C-17s and others.

According to one air force official, the “Holy Grail” of simulator training will come with the introduction of live, virtual and constructive (LVC) networking between training devices and aircraft, with blue forces going against aggressors at every level for full-spectrum combat training.

Global Expansion

A dozen nations are seeking upwards of 3,000 F-35s up to 2030, and Lockheed is scaling up significantly over the next five years to accommodate that demand. Though the top priority this year remains the US Air Force’s initial operational capability declaration for the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) F-35A variant in August; the UK, Israel, Norway, Turkey, Australia and Italy are also preparing to establish their first combat-ready squadrons.

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