On a slightly overcast afternoon over the Juan de Fuca Strait, two CF-18 Hornets on temporary deployment to 19 Wing Comox investigate a twin turboprop Beechcraft B200GT during a routine training flight. A check of the tail number, followed by communication between the military’s aerospace controller and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, reveals an aircraft suspected of transporting marijuana. The fighters are tasked to escort the plane into Vancouver.

Communicating with their controller, the tower and the cooperative suspect, their approach into the international airport on Sea Island in Richmond follows the Costal Range Mountains, clearly visible from their cockpit. As they descend towards the north runway, air traffic increases; on the tarmac, emergency vehicles moving amongst the many taxing planes come into view. Once the Beechcraft is down, and the Richmond detachment of the RCMP assumes control, the fighters reunite and begin to make their way out of the congested airspace.

Another day, another good training exercise – and all done in a virtual world.

Simulated training is nothing new for the Canadian Air Force, but not long ago that scenario would have begun and ended in mid air as the fighters reached Vancouver, the Beechcraft a dot on the screen and the aerospace controllers – military and civilian – and the police played by fellow airmen hiding behind a curtain. Today, with the exception of the suspected drug runner and the Vancouver tower, all participants can play themselves, including the RCMP.

ON AN OTTAWA CAMPUS in a plain concrete building that belies its high-tech interior, the Distributed Mission Operations Centre (DMOC) is home to a sophisticated internal network of flight simulators and computer stations linked to a wider and growing world of Canadian Forces Bases and international partners exploring the limits of simulated, interactive training.

DMOC is a branch of the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (CFAWC), established in 2005 as an “engine of change” for air force transformation and ultimately as a centre of excellence for aerospace power development. Among its tasks is the provision of increased training opportunities for operators – pilots, air traffic and weapons controllers. With flying time at a premium, the virtual world has become an attractive alternative to develop familiarization with aircraft and communication systems, and to maintain a high level of operator proficiency.

“You can practice things that are too costly, risky or dangerous to do live,” says Major James Lalonde, a veteran aerospace controller who heads the DMOC, as he leads a tour of the centre’s operations.

“In the ‘sim,’ we can shoot small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles, all that stuff, at our pilots as they are flying Griffons and F-18s. They’ll get the same indication in their cockpit as they would for real. We can put them into parts of the world that they would normally not get trained in, so that when they do operate there for real it will feel as though they have been there before, right down to the tower call signs, the lay of the runway, where to park – all of that can be practiced before they even get off the ground.

“This sort of training is critical for our forward air controllers. For many of them it’s a secondary duty. But once they are back in Canada, how do they maintain a level of proficiency so that they can be put them back into theatre quickly? We send many of our guys to the U.S. to maintain their qualifications, but it’s a lot of money.”

Flight simulators, simulated exercises and gaming technology have long been standard fare in the training of pilots and air controllers. And distributed mission training – networking aspects of all three for multiple player use so that all players can see and react to each other – has been used to varying degrees within the United States military for well over a decade, more recently for the Canadian Army and Navy and only in the last two years for the Air Force. But much of that involved scripted scenarios and a great deal of role-playing and assumptions.

What is changing the game, literally and figuratively, are advances in gaming technology that allow multiple users to network platforms with computer stations around the world, and play out exercises in real time with a level of detail not experienced before. While it may sound straightforward, it’s proven difficult to execute.

“Simulation training is shifting from platform-centric to groups or units working together,” says Scott Arbuthnot, vice-president of solutions and product development for Acron Capability Engineering, an Ottawa-based company whose products are providing the bridge between new flight software developed by Microsoft and long-standing simulation programs.

“You are not necessarily training how to operate a piece of equipment – that’s been around for 20 or 30 years in simulation. Where we are going is, how do you operate your equipment in an immersed environment with a lot of other players, both within your element and outside when you get into joint training?”

The gradual move to joint training also means a move to whole-of-government exercises. Whether it is emergency response to an urban disaster or coalition operations in Africa, the technology now allows realistic advanced preparation for a range of government and civilian agencies.

“The goal for a lot of our exercises is to have real world people playing real world positions,” says Lalonde. “In our last exercise, we had a major working as an RCMP officer at his desk with the same tools an RCMP officer would have, but it’s still a guy playing that role. As we progress, we’ll have other government agencies interacting on the phone as they would in the real world.”

Arbuthnot, a former Canadian army helicopter pilot with 20 years of experience, agrees. “Stovepipe technologies are being forced by [the] marketplace to open up and become much more interactive,” he says. “As simulation training changes from learning a platform to playing together, more and more people want in.”

That desire to participate is already evident. Three years ago, CFAWC conducted what was at the time an ambitious exercise that included two Griffon helicopters in Gagetown, a 280 Class ship and an Aurora aircraft from the Maritime Warfare Centre in Halifax, a Sea King helicopter in Shearwater, CF-18s in Mirabelle and Toronto, two CF-18s in Ottawa with controllers deployed to DMOC – and all targets in Microsoft. Last August, the centre participated in Exercise Northern Goshawk, a five-day operation involving simulated U.S., British and Canadian air forces in a virtual battlespace over a fictitious island called Pacifica.

And the number of Canadian players is growing. Lalonde expects the squadrons of 22 Wing North Bay – the Canadian Air Defence Sector – to be online by the end of May, and to see 17 Wing Winnipeg, 4 Wing Cold Lake and 3 Wing Bagotville linking up soon after. In September, he hopes to begin more regular exercises with the Americans, British and Australians, all of which bring a different lexicon and terminology to their combat operations. As the network expands, AWACS from the U.S., the U.K. or Germany will be integrated into exercises, a far cheaper option than flying the 12- to 17-person crews to a real world exercise. (In fact, U.S. Navy officers and AWACS crews are now able to be certified through simulation at a fraction of the cost and without wear and tear on the equipment.)

While one may be inclined to see distributed mission operations as merely a high-tech game, Lalonde has a scenario that quickly brings home what’s at stake and why preparing all participants is so vital.

“If we were ever forced to shoot down a passenger aircraft in Canada, it would take time. An aircraft flying at 450 knots travels a great distance. So it’s paramount to intercept quickly to allow decision-makers time to make that critical decision and to try other options such as forcing it to land. But if it is a hijacking, and we have multiple calls from passengers on cell phones confirming the pilot is dead, and the plane is heading into a large urban area, then the question would be: Prime Minister, what do you want to do? That’s a tough decision. And what if the fighter pilot who must launch the missile says, ‘my wife was on a Westjet flight this morning; I can’t pull the trigger.’ Now his wingman has to take over but he’s never fired a missile in his life. When you start playing this out in simulation, you get all the nerves and everything else you’d experience in the real world. You develop that experience of making tough choices.”

Acron’s interface
One of the reasons for the new level of realism in distributed mission exercises is a product by Ottawa-based Acron Capability Engineering called SimX, released last fall in conjunction with Microsoft’s ESP, a visual simulation software development platform.

“It’s an interface between Microsoft’s product and traditional simulation networking,” said Scott Arbuthnot, Acron’s vice-president of solutions and product development. “It translates the traffic back and forth and allows [ESP] to talk to the rest of the network.”

“If we didn’t have this and you were tasked to escort a 737 into Vancouver, when you came in you would see no other aircraft around,” explained Major James Lalonde, head of DMOC for the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre.

DMOC can create a virtual version of almost any aircraft, right down to the smallest detail. So a pilot preparing for the first day of the Gulf War, in which coalition forces flew 3000 sorties and conducted escorts of 10 to 12 aircraft at a time, could see and respond to all aircraft, and fly a complicated scenario in which time-to-task is set to the minute: “You can’t be two minutes late arriving in that airspace because somebody else will be in there dropping bombs or the Navy will be launching cruise missiles – we can duplicate that in sim,” said Lalonde.

A platform for builders of commercial simulation tools, ESP was a “disrupter” in the market that dropped the price point for those getting into simulation, Arbuthnot said. But it lacked a “hook” into existing programs. Acron developed SimX in conjunction to “hook Microsoft’s new product into that existing framework.”

Lalonde notes that Acron also allows the Air Force to change IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) codes on the network, and actually see features like landing gear, lights and flaps, which previously would have been acknowledged as being up or down without any visual confirmation. “Now we’re taking scenarios to a more logical conclusion,” he said.