Inside a building at MacDill Air Force Base, operators of the booms feeding fuel from KC-135 Stratotanker jets to thirsty fighters and bombers sit in front of a jazzed-up video game called a Boom Operator Weapons Systems Trainer. There they practice the delicate in-flight maneuver that links up two aircraft zooming through the skies at several hundred miles per hour.
Last month, the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill installed the $2.5 million simulator as a way to save money at a time when military spending is being slashed.
All across the Department of Defense, the use of simulators like the BOWST is increasing. And not just because it saves money. With a simulator, operators can train for emergencies, like an engine fire or landing gear failure, that would not be possible midair.
And that is good economic news for the Interstate 4 corridor running from Tampa through Orlando to Daytona Beach, say defense contractors, who are struggling as the Pentagon trims its budgets.
The cost factor is a big selling point.
Each KC-135 flight costs about $6,500 per hour. Boom operators can perform their training in the simulators for less than 5 percent of that.
“The use of simulators has always been an integral part of training our pilots and boom operators and allows us to stretch our dollars in this tough economic environment,” said Air Force Col. Brian Smith, 6th Operations Group Commander, in an email to The Tampa Tribune. “While we cannot replace the training received in flying actual missions, simulators provide a venue for aircrew to hone their required flying skills and get credit for those training items that aren’t required in the jet. In terms of savings, an hour of flight time in the KC-135 is roughly $6,500 whereas operating the Boom Operator Weapons System Trainer cost less than $300 per hour.”
The wing plans on using the simulator about 1,250 to 1,860 hours annually, according to spokesman Terry Montrose.
In Tampa, simulators are big business.
For CAE USA, based in Tampa, simulation systems and training is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“There is certainly a move with defense forces globally and the United States specifically, to move as much training as possible into synthetic training,” said Chris Stellwag, a CAE USA spokesman. “It is primarily driven because of economics, but I don’t want to lead you to believe it is only economic reasons. Simulation, as you might expect is safe. You can do things in a simulator that you can’t do in an aircraft, like practice engine fires, landing gear failures.”
CAE USA provides simulators, upgrades and training for aircraft such as the KC-135, the C-103J, the Navy’s new P-8 patrol plane and unmanned aerial systems among others.
“The U.S. and other militaries around the world are looking to increase the amount of simulation-based training they do,” said Stellwag. “This is a positive. The defense market right now is difficult. Budgets are coming down. If you are involved in any part of defense, simulators are a good part to be involved in.”
Weapons systems are not the military’s only interest in simulators.
The University of South Florida’s Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS) is part of an ongoing $5.3 million Department of Defense-funded grant with a goal of proving that simulation is superior to animal live-tissue training in preparing combat medics. That’s just one of the many simulation programs underway at CAMLS, said Luis E. Llerena, assistant professor of surgery at USF and medical director of the CAMLS Surgical & Interventional Training Center.
“It’s huge,” said Llerena of the opportunities for simulator-driven economic growth. “We are an entrepreneurial simulation center, with multiple missions.”
The proximity to MacDill, home to U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command, is helpful, he said.
So too is Tampa’s location as part of what has been termed the “High Tech Corridor.”
The region from here to Daytona Beach has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of simulation companies, said CAE USA’s Stellwag.
“The I4 corridor probably has 160 or more companies related to simulation and training,” he said. “So the increased adoption of modeling and simulation for more training and other uses, such as analysis, experimentation and concept development, increases opportunities for CAE USA to extend the reach of its business.”
The Pentagon sees simulations as a growth area.
“Obviously, the trend lines (for simulator use) are on the rise,” said Frank DiGiovanni, the Pentagon’s director of Force Readiness and Training, “Simulation is something we are looking to for a couple of reasons. One has to do with cost savings. The other is efficiency and the way we deliver training.”
The move toward simulation systems began long before the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration kicked in, DiGiovanni said.
“Sequestration aside, the services realized the potential that virtual training brings when it comes to being efficient,” he said. “Long before sequestration hit, the services came to the realization that they had to be good stewards and efficient as they can,”