Improving NATO Air Training

An Outlook to Future Tactical Air Training

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col



, SP


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2017-2020)

 December 2019
Warfare Domains: Air Operations

‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’1

Publius Flavius Vegetius

To many military professionals, being well prepared for war means, among other things, one has the best equipment, updated doctrine and optimum training for a spectrum of future conflicts. Indeed, once there is a formulated idea of the future environment, NATO can, and should, update its next-generation training strategy. In regards to Tactical Air Power Training, this entails a review of the future operating environment and then a critical look at how the Alliance should adapt to prepare its aviators for the future.


Future Operating Environment

Based on the Framework for Future Alliance Operations2, factors such as technological advances, new concepts of operation (Global Strike, Hybrid and Cyberspace operations) and shifts in the geopolitical landscape will greatly influence the future security environment. In addition, armed conflicts may be characterized by increased interconnectivity across the recognized domains of warfare (land, sea, air, space, and information environment) and, among other things, by small units fighting over greater distances.

Another takeaway from these estimations of the future is that, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Alliance has to be able to conduct operations against a peer-state actor. Therefore, the future operating environment may be one in which air superiority can neither be assured at the onset of operations nor, once obtained, be assumed an enduring condition3. As a result, during the 2018 NATO Summit, the Heads of State and Government agreed on a Joint Air Power Strategy (JAPS) which ‘… will strengthen our Integrated Air and Missile Defence, and guide our aerospace capabilities to operate together jointly, more swiftly, and effectively in peacetime, crisis, and conflict’.

In a future joint fight, 5th generation aircraft, like the F-35, with their sensor fusion capabilities and enabling connectivity, should be able to share a network with other service assets, such as air defence frigates or land-air defence battalions, and direct them to engage targets out of their sensor range limit with the best available weapon4. This symbiosis, or full integration in a joint and combined environment, may entail a transformation of pilots into Joint Mission Commanders (JMCs) in a multi-domain scenario. Potentially, these JMCs would have the capability to exercise distributed Command and Control (C2) of the air battle in their designated area, while simultaneously protecting other assets and assuring air superiority.

While the possibilities are tantalizing, to actually realize such a ‘multi-domain’ future, it is important that the Alliance carefully considers Tactical Air Training of tomorrow. Furthermore, it will require appropriate Education, Training, Exercise and Evaluation (ETEE) at all levels, from individual to organizational, to include joint competencies, to work together and to do so effectively5.

Flight Training: Live, Virtual and Constructive

Now that F-35s are attaining Initial Operation Capability (IOC) in many NATO countries, there is an urgent need to introduce the next generation of flight training to get a cost-effective and integrated solution for the users. This integrated training should be comprised of an equilibrium of Live, Virtual and Constructive (LVC) training scenarios and exercises6, including live adversary air and ground threats, from Operational Conversion Units, (OCU) to Fighter Squadrons. In this context ‘Live’ stands for a pilot training in an aircraft; ‘Virtual’ refers to a pilot training in a flight simulator; and ‘Constructive’ refers to computer (or human) generated entities or effects that support the ‘Live’ or ‘Virtual’ domains.

With the introduction of LVC networking between training devices and aircraft, the possibilities for more complex and diversified tactical training have risen exponentially as more entities, team players, simulated threats and Weapon Engagement Zones (WEZ) can be included in training scenarios. Indeed, modern trainers use embedded LVC-type constructs to present the students with radar data and situational awareness in a way similar to what they will see in future cockpits. For example, the F-5, which entered service in Spain in 1970, has been capable of providing Beyond Visual Range (BVR) training through networked system updates. The upgrades include an embedded radar and a warning receiver using data link and, among other safety characteristics, a collision avoidance system. The Live-Constructive employment of advanced features in early assets preserves highly valuable flight hours in the OCU of modern fighters.

Distributed Mission Training via Simulation

The advent of simulation technology has enabled Mission Training via Simulation (MTS) to provide one of the best opportunities to combine future, multinational and advanced tactical training events. As an example, the Multinational Aviation Training Centre (MATC)7, located in Pardubice, Czech Republic, is a Mission Training Simulation centre driven by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).8 A networked system of Virtual-Constructive (VC) participants includes eight high fidelity stations with roll-in/roll-out interchangeable throttle and stick controls and configurable displays that can simulate different platforms and enable high-intensity tactical training. The locally networked cockpits replicate either the Saab Gripen or other configurable options for different airframes. Scenarios include VC threats and WEZs for training pilots and Ground Control Intercept (GCI) controllers, ranging from basic two-versus-two BVR to more complex four-versus-many scenarios.

When linked together, Mission Training through Distributed Simulation (MTDS)9 allows a network of multiplayer and multisite training opportunities, from individual and team participation to full-theatre battles. Mission C2 can be exercised by participants from Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs) that can play as training audiences. GCI controllers, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACS), Duty Officers or even Air Defence Commanders can be involved in large-scale, synthetic scenarios from multiple locations, in real time.

MTDS is a great tool to develop multi-domain unity of action and interoperability through integral, realistic and comprehensive training. Furthermore, simulation may be used as a laboratory for tactical dilemmas, like Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD), or for current and/or off-region scenario war gaming, like Baltic Air Policing. If simulation is coupled with Artificial Intelligence (AI), multiple benefits can be obtained. One example of this is an intelligent tutoring system that can generate an event template library. This library, in turn, facilitates the extraction of information about the tactical behaviour of an entity.10 Additionally, while practicing various tactical mission sets (e.g. Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD), Ground Attack, Offensive Counter Air (OCA)), the system can gauge the performance of the weapon/sensor combination or effect, such as Electronic Attack, and generate Measures of Effectiveness, (MOEs) related to tactics, shot validation, shot doctrines and Probability of Kill (PK) criteria.

Opposition Forces

NATO live air training is accomplished through major flying exercises, such as Red Flag in the United States, Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) in the Canary Islands, and Iniochos in Greece, as well as through the Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP) course at Albacete Air Base in Spain.11 These avenues provide unique opportunities for Blue forces to train against advanced, simulated, Red forces. However, opportunities for NATO aircrew to participate in TLP and other air exercises are limited. Moreover, the presence of burgeoning 5th generation aircraft fleets in some of the TLP nations may cause disruptions in the current training community because of aircraft and pilot availability, flight hour costs, security issues and other support factors. These issues will likely impact future multinational training, based on dissimilar platforms, more seriously than today’s training among 3rd and 4th generation platforms.

Currently, advanced training requires dedicated and capable opposition forces (OPFOR), which are usually a mix of Red Air and Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD). The TLP has started a dedicated OPFOR Training Program to improve the skills of tactical fighter aircrews in the replication of adversary tactics. The programme is available for those supporting TLP exercises as Red Air, and it is run by a dedicated team within TLP who specialize in OPFOR fighter tactics and GBAD employment (with support from Intel and Air C2 specialists)12.

However, this option is not the most efficient solution since Red Air forces are ordinarily played by pilots who are going to attend the course as a Blue audience in the short term. Additionally, there is not always an actual dissimilar aircraft on the Red side, especially with appropriate, dissimilar electronic warfare equipment, which sometimes leads to negative learning for Blue players.

A different option is a dedicated OPFOR Unit, such as the USAF’s Adversary Tactics Squadrons, with organic Intelligence and Tactics sections, supported by realistic Red doctrine and capable aircraft that challenge 4th and 5th generation fighter pilots13. This NATO (or national) unit would be dedicated to support a spectrum of exercises and training events from the squadron level, to TLP courses, to other bigger exercises out of the area. The unit would deploy, as necessary, to train and qualify aircrews from NATO countries, especially in Europe. This option would avoid exorbitant costs from squadron deployments and loss of flight hours for aircraft simulating OPFOR. Subsequently, OCUs and squadrons would retain the resources needed to concentrate on their assigned missions while the OPFOR Unit would standardize and replicate Red tactics suitable to the threat.

A third option is to outsource OPFOR through a contracted company that provides its own pilots and maintains its own aircraft. This option could be attractive to many Alliance nations because budget cuts, shrinking overall force size and the aging 4th generation fighter jets are limiting the amount of personnel and aircraft air forces have available to replicate Red Air.

Minimum requirements for simulated Red Air aircraft could be defined by users, depending on the fighter squadron to train (4th or 5th generation), but could include Active and Passive Detection systems, Electronic Attack (EA), Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), Jam and Shoot (EA J/S), Infra-Red and Electronic Counter Measures (IRCM and ECM), Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST), Data Link, Off-Boresight Weapons Targeting and Control of Radar Cross Section (RCS). Other requirements might refer to the ability to use an open architecture with the intention to rapidly update software for on-board systems to accommodate future advancements in own and threat systems.

Along these lines, in recent years the adversary air industry has been slowly expanding, especially in the United States. Many companies are already acquiring aircraft from depots and returning them to flight condition, installing off-the-shelf equipment to meet the standards for a dedicated Red Air force at a minimum cost. Examples of these aircraft are the A-4K Skyhawk, Northrop F-5B, CF-5D and F-5 E/F, Mirage F1M, Aero L-159E Alca, Atlas Cheetah C and the Kfir.


NATO is preparing for contested environments where a multi-domain approach is required to have the advantage over our adversaries. To that extent, 5th generation aircraft are going to have a decisive impact on the way Air Power is delivered, especially when interoperability issues are resolved. As 5th Generation aircraft enter service in many NATO countries, an advanced and cost-effective training solution will have to be standardized in their Air Forces without sacrificing resources or operational capabilities.

Through common architectures, using machine to machine communication, a virtual operational environment can be embedded to replicate things such as radar, WEZs or data link information of joint and opposition forces. LVC synthetic training has the potential to enhance the quality of training and ensure seamless pilot transitions into 5th generation aircraft. In the near term, these tools can reduce the demand for live F-35 training missions and preserve its costly flight hours for operational use.

Multisession simulation will have to be employed extensively to facilitate advanced integration and joint training, but to get there, we need to have multinational secure networks in place. Meanwhile, it is beneficial to create centres of MTDS in key training bases to complement and support Tactical Air Training.

Lastly, training in contested environments requires an integrated OPFOR, ‘air and surface threat representative’, with a standardized doctrine and capable support, dissimilar aircraft, electronic warfare means and dedicated aircrews, all in a cost-effective solution. If developed, future OPFOR should incorporate multi-domain operations, in which Red cyber and space actions influence Blue training in realistic ways. A NATO solution could consist of a new, dedicated ‘Red squadron’ or a contractor. In the end, the future of our Tactical Air Training will depend largely on how well the Alliance leverages LVC opportunities and how effectively it trains our aircrews against realistic, advanced threats.

‘If you want peace, prepare for war’, Publius Flavius Vegetius. Written in his Epitoma rei militaris in the late 4th century AD, is the motto of many NATO squadrons.
NATO, Framework for Future Alliance Operations 2018.
NATO, Joint Air Power Strategy.
Bronk, Justin, ‘Maximum Value from the F-35’, Whitehall Report 1-16, London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, (2016).
Ibid. 3.
Harrigan, J and Marosco, M, ‘Fifth Generation Air Combat: Maintaining the Joint Force Advantage’, The Mitchel Forum, No. 6 (2016).
Four nations are the signatories of the MOU; Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia and Slovakia.
Mission Training through Distributed Simulation (MTDS) is a Tier I project to establish a persistent NATO/Multinational MTDS infrastructure to support distributed tactical training through simulation.
The mission of the TLP is to increase the effectiveness of Allied Air Forces through development of leadership skills, mission planning, briefing, tactical air operations and debriefing skills and conceptual and doctrinal initiatives:
Morrison, Brian, ‘Is Red Air Meeting Your Needs?’ The Journal of the JAPCC, Edition 17, Spring/Summer (2013): p. 63–67.
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Lieutenant Colonel
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2017-2020)

Lieutenant Colonel Juan Cánovas joined the Spanish Air Force in 1988 and is a qualified F-18 and F-5M Instructor Pilot. He completed Basic Pilot Training in Spain in 1992, Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance AFB, United States, and Fighter Weapons course at the 23rd Wing in Spain. He has been assigned as Instructor Pilot in the Fighter Weapons School, 23rd Wing, in Talavera Air Force Base. He also served in the 122 Squadron, 12th Wing at Torrejón AFB, where he flew the EF-18. He has worked in NATO ACC Izmir HQ, TACEVAL Division, as a GBAD and Flying Forces project officer and evaluator. Following the Armed Forces Joint Staff course he was assigned as a Materiel Group commander and Academics and Flying Group commander in the Fighter Weapons School, 23rd Wing, prior to his assignment to the Joint Air Power Competence Centre where he is in the Combat Air Branch as a Manned Air Expert. He has experience in several NATO operations as a pilot and as a battle Staff member.

Information provided is current as of December 2019

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