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Virtualized Air Force war games put Top Gun to shame

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Every year for the past four decades, the US Air Force and its NATO allies have staged a series of mock battles -- dubbed Red Flag events -- to provide soldiers with "real-world" experience before actually throwing them into active combat. But this year's Red Flag marks a significant departure from its predecessors in that the 2015 exercise will be the first to virtually integrate warfighters from around the country using cutting-edge flight simulators.

Red Flag events are put on by the United States Air Force Warfare Center (USAFWC) and typically held at Nellis Air Force Base, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. This site provides 15,000 square miles -- roughly half the size of Switzerland -- of open airspace in which participants can operate.

However, real conflicts rarely happen within such a small area. That's why the USAFWC is leveraging a network of connected flight simulators to virtually expand the theater of operations from 15,000 square miles to a whopping 1.3 million square miles. This integration allows for many more friendly troops (Blue Flags) to match up against enormous simulated enemy forces (Red Flags).

"The benefits to the warfighter of integrating 'virtual' into Red Flags are that it allows us to bring in more of the combat-realistic threat envelope, and we're now able to maximize the air tasking order with the most amount of 'Blue Forces' in both the virtual and live sides of a joint air operations area that is 1,200 by 1,100 nautical miles, compared to the Nevada Test and Training Range which is about 100 by 100 nautical miles," Lt. Col. Kenneth Voigt, 505th Test Squadron commander, said in a statement.

That's not to say that everybody involved gets to fly (either physically or virtually). In fact, most of the remotely participating forces will be providing simulated ground surveillance and support for the planes that are actually above Nellis AFB, though there will also reportedly be a few virtual aerial assets in the mix.

Airmen participate in the live, virtual, constructive portion of Red Flag 15-2 at the Combined Operations Center-Nellis on Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Mar. 5, 2015. Red Flag 15-2 will be the first Red Flag exercise that will include hundreds of virtual and constructive participants in simulators at their home stations or the Distributed Mission Operations Center at Kirtland AFB, N.M. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Thomas Spangler)

"What we're going to do is take a virtual Joint Stars, or VSTARS, to pick up movers - live trucks on the range - and broadcast that to live strike assets, F-16 (Fighting Falcons) or F-15 (Eagles), to go employ on a dynamic target mission," Voigt continued. "The Nellis Test and Training Range personnel on the range are a crucial partner for LVC ["Live-Virtual Constructive"] integration. The ability to track and send location data to the VSTARS is due to their experts."

Red Flag will reportedly even include scenarios involving both live and virtual Patriot units -- despite each missile costing nearly $1 million to transport out to the event. In all, hundreds of pilots are expected to participate.

And it's not just the cost savings that has the USAF crowing over the virtual integration: "By combining LVC training, we'll be able to show how we can maximize our footprint in LVC, push the technology envelope, see where we need to go in the future with our end-goal being able to integrate fifth-generation fighters and bombers with our fourth-generation assets, while being able to provide them with realistic threats to go against," Voigt explained. "The combined efforts in the months leading up to 15-2 will pay huge dividends for all the participants, as they're going to get the most combat-realistic environment in the Air Force." At least until combat UAVs like the Taranis or the nEUROn take over and relegate every Air Force pilot to the role of remote operator.

[Image Credit: USAF]

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