To continue current missions, adapt to brand new aircraft and prepare for large-scale combat operations, the Army is pushing its pilots in some of the toughest training challenges, both real and virtual, that they’ve ever faced.

Some of that is going to come from new high-tech trainers that developers hope to keep pace with rapid changes in the existing equipment and future add-ons as that gear evolves. But other parts of training are a return to fundamentals that the gray-haired generals would find familiar – planning, executing and evaluating your own training.

A group of current and retired senior Army aviators spoke Thursday at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Aviation Hot Topic meeting.

While the conference covered ongoing deadlines for future aircraft and ways that top leaders will continue to sustain current and future operational tempo, the subject most Army aviators are already seeing or will soon see was the focus on how to prepare for large-scale combat operations in training.

Advances in synthetic training environments, or ways of using virtual battlefields, either entirely immersive or a combination of augmented reality with existing scenarios, is perhaps the only way to effectively drill what’s needed to fight the big fight, said Brig. Gen. Stephen L.A. Michael, deputy commanding general of the Army’s Combined Arms Center.

“The bottom line is that STE will give us the ability to replicate the challenges of large scale combat operations,” Michael said.

But also, all of the work around training will also have to change.

Michael said it’s time for training to be treated like a commodity and “returned to the commanders.”

He noted that a lot of new lieutenants and captains in the aviation field have not had to access mission training plans and documents, a common practice just a few decades ago.

That’s because due to high op tempo and aviation demands, most training during the Global War On Terror missions was focused on getting the pilot as ready as fast as possible so others handled the prep work.

Retired Gen. James Thurman, former head of United Nations Command, Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, noted that current commanders can’t just abandon their counterinsurgency skill sets in favor of future scenarios.

Both have to be trained. Responding to an audience question on how that would happen, Thurman said that developing “full spectrum scenarios” for the training environment would have to start at home station training. That process then has to be managed all the way through and a set of standard operating procedures that tells commanders, whether they’re aviation, armor, infantry, engineers or otherwise, what’s expected of them.

He noted that every battalion task force in the past had to be able to move to contact, conduct hasty attack and hasty defense while also sustaining the formation and doing COIN work.

“Army aviation has to be fully integrated as part of combined arms,” he said.

For the Army National Guard, preparation for large-scale combat may be a major priority, but it can’t be the only one. They still have their state duties and disaster response work to prepare for and execute, said Brig. Gen. Ray Davis, assistant director of aviation and safety for the Guard.

Part of that preparation, though, will require a re-examination of how the Guard aviation units are dispersed across the country.

Davis said an Army aviation task force is evaluating the challenges to how the service stations its units and looking to decrease dispersion.

With units spread from coast to coast, that challenges the ability for them to come together and train, he said.

The development of the Army’s Future Vertical Lift, which will replace the Black Hawk, Chinook, Kiowa and Apache helicopters with at least two new platforms, also opens up training challenges.

Those include both the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft and the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft.

Col. John M. Ferrell, who heads simulations at the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, said that current updates to platforms see major delays in those changes hitting training simulators.

That creates problems for keeping pilots up to date on the latest equipment upgrades.

The new goal is to have those run in parallel in under 90 days. That means that if a helicopter gets an upgrade the training software or module will receive the same upgrade within that time frame. It’s still a delay that can pose problems but it’s a more workable timeline.

What simulations can do

And as the Army adapts to a new way of warfare, the Multi-Domain Operations concept that’s being developed across the force, the simulations that aviators use are helping but not fully solving those difficulties, he said.

On a weekly basis, Ferrell said, they’re developing complex scenarios and changing instruction. But the simulations still cannot fully replicate all of the demands of the MDO environment, which will see pilots and ground units hit with a barrage of kinetic fires, electronic warfare jamming, spoofing and cyber-attacks on their networks.

“We’ve got to train our leaders on what tools are available,” Ferrell said. That will help build competency as the systems evolve.

The colonel did stress that the training abilities do allow for them to deeply assess individual, team and unit-level performance. That helps feed back data to commanders to help meet their training and mission objectives.

But simulations can provide things that real-life training can’t, he said.

For instance, helicopters can fly at much greater speed, practice long-range fires and work in environmental problems such as weather or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attack scenarios.

Large-scale combat

Col. Kenneth E. Cole, who recently took over as deputy commander at the ACOE, relayed that in the operational force that he just left in Europe, pilots, air crews and maintenance crews are training as a single entity for large-scale combat.

During recent exercises such as Saber Guardian and Swift Response, soldiers traversed more than 1,000 miles and as many as six countries to conduct their exercises.

“The takeaway there is that you can’t just do that tonight,” he said. “You have to train to get there, build those blocks, protect training and emphasize fundamentals.”

No longer can a commander or pilot show up at the National Training Center and start figuring out what they want to train while they’re there, Thurman said.

Michaels sees a clear goal – to have units arriving at their CTCs “ready for war.” That will take combined home station training and a mentality that has training embedded in all aspects of what pilots do throughout their jobs.

“Training staffs have to be able to plan, think at the speed of war,” he said.