With tight budgets, Air Force simulation center proves a cost saver

The Distributed Mission Operations Center also will provide training for the service's shift to rely on more unmanned aerial vehicles rather than fighter jets.

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- In an ordinary office building here, the Air Force Distributed Mission Operations Center runs sorties with all the realism of combat, but without burning one drop of jet fuel.

Instead of taking to the air, pilots and aircrew strap themselves into simulators, located about a mile from the Albuquerque International Sunport airport, and fly in cyberspace with all the realism of actual flight, say, an F-16 fighter, "except for the shake, rattle and roll," said Lt. Col. Troy Molendyke, commander of the 705th Combat Training Wing, which operates the center.

The center serves as the hub of a distributed simulation network that ties into other air and ground systems that can replicate a variety of aircraft and as many as 40,000 ground vehicles, said Maj. d'Artagnan de Anda, the self described geek who oversees distributed warfare missions.

The center, which was built in 2000 for $14 million and has expanded since then, functions with about 1,000 networked PCs, some with quad processors, running on either Linux or Windows operating systems, and taps into network connections that range in speed from T-1 circuits (1.544 megabytes per second) to OC-3 circuits (155 mbps) to runs simulations, DeAnda added.

The basement of the building houses simulators of command-and-control aircraft such as the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System and the E-8 Airborne Warning and Control System. In what DeAnda described as a "virtual live" exercise, the crew operating the simulators can direct real aircraft conducting exercises at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The Air Force has placed greater emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Predator and this week the center completed installation of the Predator simulator, said Tech. Sgt. Darrell DeMotta during a tour of the facility.

He served three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a joint terminal attack controller, overseeing air support for the Army and Special Forces ground troops. DeMotta helped spearhead the development of the simulators to replicate the JTAC mission.

The systems include the basic tools of the JTAC's trade such as a designator to control a laser-guided bomb and a range finder to determine, with the aid of GPS receivers, location and position. The information is then transmitted over a satellite radio, to a simulated Air Support Operations Center, providing JTACs with the full range of simulated systems they would use in actual combat.

DeMotta said the JTAC simulation systems help him and fellow controllers keep their skills current at a time when tight budgets have limited live training. He said he must run 12 missions a year to remain qualified as a JTAC. "Air Force budget cuts mean less flying hours . . . and the simulators provide cheaper training," he said.

In September the center will conduct its first operations with allies from Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom in an operation named Coalition Virtual Flag, said Maj. Michele Boyko, the exercise director who also serves as assistant director for operations for the 705th.

In that operation, a global network will allow the Royal Air Force to fly simulated Typhoon fighters and Tornado fighter bombers alongside simulated Royal Australian Air Force F-18 fighters, Canadian Forces CF-18 fighters and a variety of U.S. aircraft, including B1 and B2 bombers and F-15 and F-16 fighters, said Boyko, a B1 bomber weapons systems officer.

The United States now operates in a coalition environment, and Boyko said the global simulation will enable all these forces to train as they fight.