News | Dec. 19, 2023

Twisting Mettle: Joint Simulation Environment Gives F-35 Pilots A Threat They Can Learn From

By Rob Perry

A new training simulator exclusive to the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) is stressing out F-35 Lightning II pilots in a good way.

The Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) has been operational at NAWCAD, located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, for nearly two years. The simulator, which was installed inside an existing NAWCAD building, has drawn so much attention due to its ability to display near-peer fifth-generation threats in a virtual environment that training at the facility has been added to the syllabus for top tier pilots who train at the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Course—better known as TOPGUN.

Built by NAWCAD for use across the Department of Defense, the JSE is a hyper-realistic simulation environment made up of both hardware including cockpits, domed simulators with 4K projectors and software to form a high-fidelity digital range used to train tactical pilots, and test new defense technology in near-exact virtual battlespaces. The idea to build the simulator came out of a need to fully test F-35 capabilities and pilots.

“There was acknowledgement across the DoD that our open air ranges where aircraft would normally fly operational test missions did not possess the complexity nor the density of the threat to fully stress an F-35,” said Derek Greer, NAWCAD Integrated Battlespace Simulation and Test Department Head. “The thought was let’s build a modeling and simulation environment where we can make it dense and complex to stress the F-35.”

NAWCAD was brought in to develop JSE starting in 2016. As of 2023, “we just finished the operational test in September. In the process of building this high-fidelity simulator for operational test, we just so happened to create the world’s best F-35 training simulator. That’s why TOPGUN is here. They are here because our representation of the F-35 is really good, our representation of the threat is really, really good, and our representation of the environment, meaning the electromagnetic spectrum, is really good.”
“We like to describe this as a digital range,” said Blaine Summers, NAWCAD Joint Simulation Environment Director. “As opposed to our open-air, physical ranges, JSE is effectively a digital range where we can rapidly construct different threat presentations, different blue weapon systems and understand how they really hold up in full-scale global conflict. And we can do that on a digital range where we don’t have to worry about loss of life or aircraft, or worry about our adversaries watching what we are up to.”

“We really started positive momentum in January 2022,” Greer said. “That is when the simulator sufficiently matured and we hosted our first training event which received out of this world rave reviews.”

In addition to the aircraft themselves, a multitude of weapons equipped on the real-life aircraft are also being added into the JSE programming.
“We are building a foundation for next-generation weapon system integration,” Summers said.

The JSE stands above other training simulators mainly due to its ability to replicate high-fidelity threat models that are provided by the intelligence community, which includes a model of an adversary aircraft and all of its sensors and weapons and can simulate ground threats. Greer said that the simulators ability to model the electromagnetic spectrum enables pilots to engage across all capabilities and challenges.

“[Pilots] are not used to flying against threats that shoot weapons,” he said. “They are not used to flying against targets that detect an F-35 at ranges we would expect an F-35 to be detected at. They don’t get that in flying [on a range] or in legacy simulators. We have made JSE match the intel [on our near-peer adversaries] to the best of our ability.”

The JSE, with the assistance of Lockheed Martin, has the best representation of the F-35, including handling, weapon and sensor systems.
“These pilots are experts,” Greer said. “If there was something wrong, or something was off, they would tell us in two seconds.”

More than 500 pilots have gone through the JSE since it became operational, Greer said. Among those pilots are the elite naval aviators that have been accepted to TOPGUN and the JSE hosted a group of students and instructors in October.

When TOPGUN instructors and students are in town for training, they perform more than 350 sorties, or simulated flights, through the JSE, Summers said.

“Their instructors would typically need a year to a year and a half in other places in order to get that throughput. The quantity of reps and sets they are getting is just phenomenal and that’s where the learning is happening.”

Lt. Cmdr. Zach “Jerry” Williams, a member of the TOPGUN training staff and an F-35 Fleet Training Officer, said pilots who come out of the simulator are unanimously “exhausted at the end.”

“F-35 pilots have never trained in the fleet. They don’t often train to a threat that can find them and shoot them,” Williams said. “Our adversary aircraft [used on ranges] usually don’t have modern sensors equipped that can track an F-35. We also don’t have enough assets to train to. So, the students leave here with wide eyes because now they see a threat that can detect them, a threat that can shoot them. They then have to defend that threat or they try. When you go through an entire day and you see the ‘killed’ symbol on your screen over and over and over again and then you can go up to debrief and diagnose that exact moment where you were killed—that is a perspective changing experience.”

Williams said he develops tactics for the F-35 and was able to work with the JSE team to introduce a specific threat into the simulator in order to confirm if a tactic he had developed would be successful against that specific threat and scenario.

“I can take the effects that I see here and confirm all the mission planning I've done. I can't actually replicate that threat in the real world, but I now have two sources confirming the same thing. And now I can say, ‘I might be able to publish a tactic against that threat.’”
Williams said before using the JSE, he would take given information from the intelligence community regarding threat capabilities and discern what could be a response tactic.

“Here, I can validate it,” he said. “It’s better to validate against something rather than nothing.”

“What really facilitates that learning is they go execute a mission and the digital range is of such fidelity that they get punished if they make mistakes because the threats are really good, like they would be in the real world,” Summers said. “They literally walk upstairs to a debriefing room two minutes after the mission and they go talk about and watch the replay.”

From there pilots have a chance to examine what they saw, what they did and what they could do better. After reviewing the scenario, they can go right back into the simulator and do it again.

“They wash, rinse and repeat day in and day out until they hone their tactics,” he said.

Throughout their time training in the JSE, additional threats and more dangerous scenarios can be introduced, including “denial zones,” wherein the pilot can experience electronic attack jamming of weapons or other systems by an enemy as it would happen in a real combat setting.

Greer said instructors have the ability to more or less “drag and drop” new scenarios in front of students in a matter of minutes while in the simulator to introduce a new threat, or increase the difficulty of the enemy. He said that the JSE enables such a diverse training environment that a group of students could fly more than 50 missions in a week and never encounter the same scenario.

“Typically, they’re getting new scenarios every single run,” he said. “Sometimes if performance was particularly poor in a certain run, they can go back and run it again and try to get better, but generally they are tweaking the threat laydown and presentation run to run to present a new challenge to the pilots.”

The decision to bring pilots to NAWCAD for a week of simulator training while attending TOPGUN came around as a result of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) at Fallon, Nevada, which is also home to TOPGUN, not having a simulator environment capable of stressing F-35 pilots to the greatest of their abilities.

“We've had to travel with the class to different concentration centers, where there are simulated environments, and those training environments are fine for basic F-35 execution, for making sure that people can operate the aircraft safely, and have a basic concept and grasp of tactics,” Williams said. “But those environments fell short in training in that graduate level teaching that we're trying to do—to find mission success in a more complicated environment. And so that's why we had to come here.”
For the same reasons the Navy is using the JSE for training, the Air Force is also looking to use the technology to train pilots in the F-22 Raptor platform. NAWCAD and the Air Force are currently collaborating to add the F-22 to the Air Force’s own JSE, currently being built, and upgrade it to the marque standard of the JSE at NAS Patuxent River. This will allow Air Force pilots to receive the same level of training pilots are currently experiencing at the JSE. Integration is expected to be finished in early 2024.

Greer said the next step is incorporating the entire carrier air wing into JSE—F/A-18 Super Hornets and EA-18G Growler models are being integrated and the team is currently in the early phases of adding the E-2D Hawkeye platform to the simulator. The “North Star” will be when the Integrated Training Facility at Fallon—which is moving to JSE architecture—has the ability to run scenarios with pilots flying different platforms in a single scenario as if they were deployed. The ITF at Fallon is where carrier air wing pilots go to train for two months prior to deployment.

Another important aspect of the simulator is its ability to be deployed aboard aircraft carriers, where F-35 pilots will be able to maintain their edge during long times at sea in a safe environment.

“The skills required to optimally use an F-35 require regular training to keep the skills sharp,” Greer said. “[Flying an F-35] is not something that you can just go do and then be deployed for six or nine months and not practice at all and then, at any given time, be able to fight a near-peer adversary. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s very much muscle memory and constant training to keep the skills sharp.”

A smaller, “light” version of the JSE is currently deployed aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), and Greer said they are working to make it better and integrate it with other platforms in the airwing and have a JSE deployed with the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) next year.

“We’ve leveraged lessons learned and expertise gained in developing JSE to rapidly close the F-35 training gap for CVN-70,” Summers said. “Less than six months after funding showed up, we delivered that capability to support the F-35 squadron that is currently deployed.”

“The first F-35C squadron, [Strike Fighter Squadron] VFA-147, deployed two years ago and had no F-35 trainer at all. The minute that carrier pulled away from the dock, the skills of those F-35 pilots started [degrading] and gradually continued [degrading] throughout the deployment. That’s really bad for us, so we’re trying to do something about it,” Greer said.

Rob Perry is a writer and editor for Naval Aviation News.