Image: Major "Ponch"
A U.S. Air Force major with the call sign "Ponch," a pilot instructor, flies a B-52 bomber training mission in a simulator at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The 11th Bomber Squadron at Barksdale is a school for new B-52 pilots, navigators and weapons officers.
The Associated Press
updated 4/30/2003 5:23:48 AM ET 2003-04-30T09:23:48

U.S. pilots who bombed Baghdad say increasingly detailed flight simulators helped familiarize them with the terrain, the threats and even the weather conditions they would face on the battlefield.

InsertArt(1883143)“THE LOCATION of my flight and the tactics employed were exactly like we were practicing in the MTC (Mission Training Center) ... before we left,” the F-16 pilot who dropped the first HARM missile on Baghdad wrote in an e-mail to trainers at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. “It was pretty cool to see the terrain and scenario ‘as practiced.’”

Computer-based simulation technology and advanced modeling are growing increasingly central to the way the U.S. military buys weapons and trains and prepares its troops for war, defense officials and industry experts agree.

This has become increasingly important in an era of budgetary constraints, chemical and biological weapon threats, and a Pentagon push to link up all its warfighters, planners and commanders so they can see the same data at the same time.

Simulation technology can also help investigate accidents like those in which Patriot missiles apparently hit U.S. and British aircraft during the Iraq war, defense officials said.

MULTIBILLION-DOLLAR MARKET

The U.S. market alone for simulation and training is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 3.5 percent through 2008, with Pentagon spending expected to reach at least $4.78 billion in 2008, Jerry Weltsch, senior defense analyst with Frost & Sullivan, told Reuters.

Defense officials say they are still gathering data on how effective simulation technology was in preparing U.S. troops for the Iraq war and rehearsing various battlefield scenarios, but initial reports from the field are positive.

If those reports are confirmed, “it could actually lead to greater growth and opportunities in the market, especially if there’s increased spending,” said Weltsch, noting that Pentagon spending on simulation and training already rose more than expected in fiscal year 2003.

Weltsch said Lockheed Martin Corp. and L-3 Communications led the overall simulation market, followed by Canada’s CAE — but smaller companies like Silicon Graphics Inc. drove innovation in the sector.

The first flight simulator known as a “blue box” was introduced in 1934, but today’s technologies are a quantum leap ahead. Image generators have been vastly improved, satellites are providing more detailed images for databases, and the ability to network simulators is rapidly growing.

At the same time, increased bandwidth is making it increasingly possible to run simulation programs on personal computers, and even laptops, said Lee Silvestre, head of integrated synthetic environments for Raytheon Co.

“Simulation has always been important, but what has caught up is the technology, especially the ability to link simulators together, making more realistic training possible,” said Col. Mike Chapin, director of the Training Systems Product Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Chapin said the Air Force has linked F-15 simulators at two bases with an AWACS simulator at a third base.

Early next year, the Pentagon will try to link Air Force, Navy and Army simulators for a wide array of weapons all over the country, said Col. Ron Joseph, who heads the effort to install new simulators at Air Force bases around the country.

In general, he said, simulators saved flight hours and fuel, and let pilots practice flying in situations that could be difficult due to air space restrictions and other factors.

STRATEGIC PLAN DUE THIS FALL

The Defense Modeling and Simulation Office aims to complete a new 10-year strategic plan by the end of September which will map out the U.S. military’s use of simulation technologies from the “cradle to the grave” of most weapons systems.

“There’s been a revolution over the past 10 years called simulation-based acquisition,” Weltsch said, noting that the U.S. military now expects defense contractors to provide sophisticated computer models that show the efficacy of a proposed weapons system before it is even built.

One weapon purchased in this way is the Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, aircraft being developed by Lockheed. In that case, the company has already developed a flight simulator for the F-35 that will allow pilots to begin training long before the first aircraft is delivered.

Raytheon’s Silvestre said she was certain her company’s experience with simulation and modeling gave it an edge that helped it and Northrop Grumman Corp. win a multibillion-dollar contract to design the Navy’s DD-X new family of warships.

She said simulation had also allowed Raytheon to test the new capabilities of the Patriot missile defense system, and in a wider range of circumstances and scenarios than it would be feasible and affordable to test in real-life exercises.

© 2003 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters.

© 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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