Video games are solving the U.S. Army's helicopter training problems. Two new helicopter simulators, LCT (Longbow Crew Trainer) and AVCATT-A, have cut the cost of pilot training some 80 percent by using the same electronic and display components found in PCs and video games. In addition to saving a lot of money, using off-the-shelf components makes is possible to create portable flight simulators. This is important for several reasons. For one thing, not every helicopter units follows the same training schedule, so it's a major advantage if the simulators could be easily moved from air base to air base. It's also important to get simulators to a war zone so pilots can practice battle tactics. The LCT does that, a first for a full fidelity (almost like the real thing) flight simulator. To do this the LCT is built into two trailers (one weighing 30 tons and 53 feet long, the other only 17 tons). It takes about 144 man hours to get LCT ready to move, and 188 hours to set it up at the next stop. Compared to previous simulators, that's pretty mobile, as the older ones were built into the structures they resided in, and took months to disassemble, move and reassemble. The LCT costs less than half what the last generation of simulators went for, and are cheaper to operate.
The army is in desperate need for LCT, because the latest model of the AH-64 Apache (the "Longbow") is a complex beast and required more training than the Army could afford. It costs over $3,000 an hour to fly an AH-64, and the number of new pilots coming through your average Apache battalion, and the number of hours they needed to become competent, meant that nearly half your flying budget was taken up by getting the newbies up to speed. LCT costs about $200 an hour to run, and can operate about 200 hours a month. The Army can afford enough of them to take care of the training needs.
The AVCATT-A, however, takes the off the shelf components, and mobility, trends a lot farther. Housed in two standard, 40 foot trailers, the system contains;
- Six Reconfigurable Manned Modules (simulated cockpits for pilot and copilot). These do not have the fidelity of LCT or older simulators, but are sufficient for experienced pilots to work out tactics in cooperation with other pilots, and against a realistic enemy. What makes these work is the photo-realistic graphics now available from off-the-shelf PC video cards. Running at about $300 each, these cards provide the graphics power of graphics "systems" 3-5 years ago that cost about a million dollars each.
- A Battle Master Control (BMC) Station. This is the officer who runs the training exercise. He, or she, must be cruel, but fair.
- A Semi-Automated Forces (SAF) Operator. The bad guys are played by software generated aircraft and ground units. But as the name SAF implies, a human operator can intercede to avoid the silliness that software generated NPCs (Non-Player Characters) are often guilty of if left to their own devices.
- Four Role Player Stations are four people who will provide realistic spoken communications over the radio. Eventually these will be replaced by software, but at the moment it's more reliable to use people.
- Eight Tactical Operations Center (TOC) Stations. Similar to the Role Player Stations, but the TOC people usually assume the same role (unit commander, air controller, Etc.) for the entire exercise.
- An After Action Review (AAR) Station. This is a miniature theater that takes up nearly half of one trailer. It seats 20 and has large displays and a sound system on one end. The beauty of this set up is that, right after the exercise, the trainees and some of the staff can go to the "AAR Station" and see instant replay, with appropriate commentary, of what they did right, or wrong.
The AVCATT-A can be quickly reconfigured to represent a AH-64A Apache, AH-64D Longbow Apache, RAH-66 Comanche, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, UH-60A/L Black Hawk, or CH-47D Chinook. It costs about three million dollars for each two trailer set. This is actually cheaper than LCT, mainly because AVCATT-A, which only entered service this year, makes greater use of current PC gaming hardware. AVCATT-A was also built to plug and play with other army combat simulators, taking networked gaming to places civilian gamers can only dream about.
The U.S. Army has, over the last decade, largely abandoned milspec (military specifications) in purchasing electronics for use in their simulators. Since the 1990s, the army has taken full advantage of the growing power of PCs and, especially, PC graphics. Milspec components can take years to get approved. But in the last few decades, noting how civilian products are developed faster, and often are more reliable than milspec equivalents, and a lot cheaper, the Department of Defense has been more readily giving permission to develop equipment that does not contain milspec parts. The markedly lower cost of things like simulators, faster delivery times and greater portability, has made the non-milspec pretty much a standard in some areas of military equipment. And in other cases, troops are taking their laptops, PDAs and other off-the-shelf electronics to take care of business in the combat zone. This has been going on for decades, a sort of unauthorized field testing of new gear. Strictly forbidden of course, as using this unauthorized stuff could get someone killed. But so far, the non-milspec gadgets appear to have saved a lot more lives than they have endangered.