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Lockheed Martin’s ACES: Shifting the Combat Simulation Paradigm 

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Lockheed Martin Corporation’s Mission Systems and Training Division is on the cusp of demonstrating an Advanced Combat Enhancement System (ACES), a development that holds the promise of enhancing the sophistication and rigor of combat training while decreasing its cost in a budget-constrained environment.  ACES, which company officials say will be formally demonstrated in the lab this spring and then in the skies this fall, is the result of six years of Lockheed Martin internal investment and cross-company collaboration.

Combat Enhancement… not Simulation

As the program’s name implies, the objective of Lockheed Martin’s ACES is not the simulation of combat as a training tool, but rather the enhancement of live combat training through the dynamic injection of synthetic scenarios – including threats -- directly into the cockpits of live flying aircraft.  These scenarios and threats, inserted directly into and across an aircraft’s full range of radars and avionics subsystems, are, according to Lockheed Martin, of such high fidelity that operators are unable to differentiate between real and synthetic friendly and enemy systems. 

ACES represents a fundamental shift in orientation, argues Lou Olinto, a retired U.S. Air Force (USAF) Colonel and former F-16 driver who now serves as Lockheed Martin’s flight training business development lead.  Says Olinto: “For years the USAF has challenged industry to build ground-based simulators and training devices that replicate what flying the aircraft is like.  The challenge to industry is now reversed… to put data from the ground back into the cockpit to enhance the training experience by making it more realistic.”

Beyond Embedded Training

Olinto cautions that we not confuse ACES and other emerging Live-Virtual-Constructive (LVC) training tools with existing embedded training systems. While many modern weapon system platforms feature embedded training systems -- software integrated into mission computer whereby operators can mission plan, run canned scenarios and see and engage a limited scope and range of synthetic threats -- one of the greatest limitations of these systems is that they occupy lines of code in the platforms’ limited mission processing elements that are (then) unavailable for other mission-critical use.  Olinto notes that LVC systems such as ACES are attractive because they relieve limited onboard mission systems of the burden associated with traditional embedded training while, based on their high fidelity and dynamic nature, can dramatically enhance the training experience.

Minimal and Affordable Modifications

Although other companies are pursuing related LVC developments – including Boeing working with and through the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory on an expanded Integrated Live Virtual Construction (ILVC) project – Olinto suggests that Lockheed Martin enjoys a distinct advantage with ACES.  He notes that his company can inexpensively implement ACES functionality aboard existing aircraft via “very minimal” and “one-time” tweaks to the fighter radar’s operational flight picture (OFP).  That competing approaches are more airframe-invasive and costly owes in part to the Lockheed Martin’s heritage as an aircraft OEM, but no less to the unique design of the ACES system.

Bandwidth – The Long Pole in the ACES Tent

While the beauty of ACES relative to current embedded training and simulation systems is that it relieves limited onboard mission systems of the processing burden of embedded systems while enhancing the experience, Olinto acknowledges that existing datalinks – the venerable Link 16 is employed for ACES -- constitute the limiting factor in ultimate ACES system performance.  Accordingly, Olinto notes that while ACES is utilizing Link 16 today “as a jumping off point,” it is “not the end-game” and he and his colleagues have an eye on leveraging alternative waveforms capable of providing greater bandwidth as such datalinks become available.

ACES on the Table

Its internal development work cloaked for several years, Lockheed Martin is now talking about ACES and is almost ready to put the system to the test.  Olinto notes that the company plans lab tests in March or April of this year followed by a live (flying F-16) demonstration “against a multitude of scenarios” in September or October 2013. If all goes as planned with these pending demonstrations, the company expects to realize ACES initial operational capability (IOC) aboard the F-16 in two to three years.

A Boon for F-16 International Customers?

Beyond the obvious potential of ACES to save ebbing training dollars by replacing expensive live threats (and wingmen) with cheap synthetic ones, Olinto and Lockheed Martin see in the rangeless-by-design ACES a capability that could be particularly attractive to current and prospective international owners of the F-16 (and other) aircraft who lack access to training ranges and the live friendly and enemy training engagements enjoyed by the USAF and other nations.  Ready integration of ACES capability into existing (“4,500+ aircraft in twenty countries”) or new-build F-16s (and prospectively F-35) aircraft could represent a significant selling point for the company’s offerings.

Looking Beyond TACAIR

Looking beyond the F-16, Lockheed Martin sees ACES having application to the company’s 5th generation F-22 and F-35 fighters.  Olinto notes that “[ACES] is not unique to fighters.  It is a response to reduced budgets, lack of airspace, and in some cases, lack of ranges on the ground and lack of ability to replicate certain threats.” 

Olinto cites the potential application of the system to AFSOC’s A/C-130 gunship, where pilots and crews could benefit from training environments enabled by ACES that realistically replicate the threats posed by a range of surface-to-air threats.   Indeed, Olinto notes that Lockheed Martin sees ACES applications as reaching beyond aviation and notes that company officials are actively engaged with Army and Marine training and doctrine officials to brief their concepts and assess interest.