ACC Aims to Cut Pilot Training Time By Up to Half

The Air Force will test a new fighter pilot training plan designed to fix deficiencies and reduce the time needed to transform a raw student pilot into a fighter flight lead from 40 to as few as 22 months.

The new concept of operations exploits the in-jet simulation capability of the new T-7 Red Hawk, paired with ground-based virtual reality and artificial intelligence to accelerate student progress.

Called “Rebuilding the Forge,” or “Reforge” for short, the new CONOPS was signed on June 2 by Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command. If tests are successful, it will lead to the most radical transformation of USAF fighter pilot training since the 1950s, according to its authors. The switch to dual-track, Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training in the 1980s was a far less dramatic restructure, they said.

The new system could potentially reduce the time it takes for a student to go from starting SUPT to combat-ready fighter pilot in as little as 18 months in the future.  

The Boeing T-7 Red Hawk’s “glass cockpit” (top) has reconfigurable displays that will allow pilots to practice realistic sensor operation and weapons release in the airplane itself, while the T-38C (bottom), although having some digital updates, is still using many “steam gauges” and dials, which won’t allow such advanced training. Boeing video screenshot and USAF photo.

In addition to fixing deficiencies in the existing syllabus tied to the inadequacy of the 60-year-old T-38, the new system will free up flight hours on frontline aircraft, making those hours available for real-world operations. The CONOPS leverages new virtual reality and simulation technology, as well as in-flight simulation capabilities built into the new T-7 Red Hawk advanced trainer. Boeing is both building that aircraft and developing courseware and simulators.

Once proven, the new CONOPS could mean acquiring additional T-7s from Boeing. The existing contract provides options for up to 100 more than the 341 called for in the deal. The T-7s needed for Reforge could be different than those built for undergraduate pilot training, and might warrant a different designation, such as TF-7, which could demand a separate engineering and manufacturing development program.

Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training now takes about 12 months. After that, fighter-bound pilots go to the Fighter Fundamentals course, flying the T-38, and then on to a Formal Training Unit in their particular fighter. The whole journey lasts about 40 months before the pilot reaches fighter qualification, including change-of-station moves and refreshers. The new CONOPS implements an Initial Tactical Training Course (ITT) that merges the latter two phases and slices about a year off the program.  

ITT graduates “will only need half the time necessary” to qualify in their intended fighter, according to the ACC document. They will arrive at their Formal Training Unit “with a higher level of tactical skills,” sharply reducing what the FTU must teach in expensive, high-end fighters.

Cost savings of the new plan have not yet been vetted, but savings are not the goal, said David Timm, a contractor on the ACC staff and a co-author of the CONOPS.

“According to the F-22 community, they’re spending 60-70 percent of their sorties” teaching their new pilots basic skills and upgrades, Timm said in an interview. “Teaching those skills sooner, with an advanced trainer, you’re able to save 50 percent of the training days; or 60 percent of the F-22 sorties that we allocate for training in an FTU, and squadrons can use that money to focus on combat training.”

The new CONOPS also halves the training time at the FTU, allowing double the pilot production in the same time and increasing throughput. That should help USAF work off the fighter pilot shortage, he said.

“We’re not looking to cut hours. We’re looking to repurpose them,” said Lt. Col. Luke Schneider, another of the CONOPS’ authors. “If I cut hours, I don’t increase readiness beyond … what it is right now.” The aim is to use the hours better, teaching pilots how to employ the fighter, instead of “how to take off, land, and do patterns,” as well as operate sensors like radars and targeting pods, he said.

The CONOPS—the first step in overhauling fighter pilot training—acknowledges that the existing program “is not working for us today and will not work in the future,” Timm asserted. The fighter fleet is being “burned out” by using it for training basic skills instead of for near-peer engagement, he added.

The ITT course will include augmented or virtual reality and artificial intelligence-enhanced instruction, permitting pilots more opportunity to learn and advance in a way that best suits their learning styles. Schneider said that AI will adapt instruction to the individual, reducing sorties and simulator events in skills where a student is already proficient, and adding them in areas where more work is needed. The high fidelity of simulation will also allow far more repetitions of needed maneuvers at far less expense than in the real airplane, so fewer real-world events are needed to progress. 

Moreover, technology has made advanced fighters better able to synthesize multiple sensor inputs into simple tactical displays, making them “easier to fly,” the CONOPS said. Schneider noted the T-7 itself, which “mimics” those jets, is easier to fly. Students raised on electronic devices are also more comfortable and experienced with high technology, further reducing training times. In the T-38, by comparison, “we spend a lot of time teaching guys not to die,” Schneider said.

The Air Force is planning a Reforge Proof of Concept (RFX) program to put the CONOPS to the test. In March, the service began a move to lease Lockheed/Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 advanced trainers or Leonardo M346 trainers for a five-year program to test and prove the CONOPS. That source selection is underway, but no decisions have been made about where the first Reforge test base will be. Those who go through the program first will be the instructor cadre and refine the model through subsequent iterations.

Holmes “wants to prove this, and not wait until the T-7 gets produced,” Schneider said. “Renting eight airplanes … is a cost that was not planned for in the POM,” or Program Objective Memoranda budget document, but it has support “at the four-star level.” Getting on contract and conducting the RFX is the “next step” in Reforge, he said.

In addition to sharply reducing the training time to become a fighter pilot, the new process will give pilots more stability by reducing the number of change of station moves they have to make during their pilot training period. They would move after winning their wings and do ITT at the same base where they join their first fighter squadron.

Reforge is the “only proposed program with the potential to meet” ACC’s readiness and pilot-production targets, according to the document.

The authors note that the shift is not simply taking advantage of new technology, but addressing an urgent operational shortfall. “We are not making new fighter pilots fast enough and we are not retaining enough of those we do make in the force,” the Reforge authors wrote.

“There are three aspects” to the pilot shortage, Schneider explained: production, absorption, and retention. Reforge addresses those by increasing the throughput of new pilots, getting them experienced more quickly, reducing their change of station moves, improving their quality of life and thus, retention.

Because pilots today aren’t getting the same operational hours flown even 15 years ago, “they don’t have as much air time or experience when they get to a combat unit,” he added. This also impedes them as they move up. “If you haven’t been a flight lead, your next assignment options are extremely limited,” Schneider said, saying Reforge “attacks” this problem, and the hope is that solving it also will help retention by reducing career frustration.

Detachment 24 student pilots train on a virtual reality flight simulator as part of the Pilot Training Next program on March 5, 2020, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. The PTN program is part of Air Education and Training Command’s initiative to “reimagine” how learning is delivered to Airmen. Photo: Sarayuth Pinthong/USAF

The CONOPS only focuses on the training of fighter pilots. It is not meant to change or disrupt Air Education and Training Command’s existing pilot training program. However, Schneider said, “We’ve been working with AETC for nine months … It’s not just an ACC program and it will dovetail with anything AETC does to bring their T-7s online. We don’t want to interrupt that.” He reported that Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, AETC commander, has been “very supportive” of the Reforge plan. AETC is also working on an overhaul of undergraduate pilot training, to take advantage of new technologies.

Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, in an interview that will appear in the July/August issue of Air Force Magazine, acknowledged that a lot of pilots who were planning to leave the service in 2020 have elected to stay, as airline hiring has dried up due to the new coronavirus pandemic. However, that anomaly isn’t a quick or lasting fix to the pilot shortage, he said.

“I’ve got to keep the demographics right,” Goldfein said. “While I’m eager to allow talented flyers to stay in with us, because we need that experience …that can’t be the sole solution because I’ll have an age imbalance, and have a much older population instead of the new blood we have to continually bring in,” he explained.

Pilot production has been cut in half during the pandemic, but USAF plans to start ramping up to about 80 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels at the end of June.

The new system will give the Air Force more bang for its pilot buck. The new CONOPS gets as much as 10 percent more combat-qualified time from each pilot’s first 10-year commitment, since each will be a trained combat pilot sooner, Schneider asserted. Also, there could be 300 hours of basic skills savings per frontline fighter per airplane per year. Multiplied across all fighter fleets, the hours redirected to true readiness would be “huge,” Schneider said.

Another reason the Reforge overhaul is necessary is because “current tactical training development is not keeping pace” with new technology, according to the document.

There are two big “gaps” in today’s fighter pilot production, the CONOPS notes:

  1. The sudden “shift in complexity” between the outdated T-38 used in SUPT and fighter fundamentals and what fighters pilots will eventually fly.
  2. The “drastic increase in complexity between FTUs and operational squadron readiness benchmarks. This gap is caused by rapidly evolving and maturing peer adversary capabilities.” Fighter pilots will have to learn earlier and integrate what they learn faster to remain dominant, the CONOPS noted.

The new CONOPS has been in the works a long time. Holmes penned an op-ed 17 months ago saying Reforge will exploit the opportunities presented by the T-7 and new technology “to reshape the entire fighter training enterprise and rebuild the forge in which we temper the world’s greatest combat aviators.” Timm said Holmes has been briefed on five iterations of the CONOPS since then.

Holmes has also said he thinks the T-7 might be acquired for homeland defense missions, as an Aggressor aircraft, or as a platform on which to partner with some allies or coaltion members.

“The T-7 was designed with growth and flexibility in mind,” a Boeing spokesperson said. “If Air Combat Command’s Reforge program determines the need of additional capabilities, we are well positioned to support our customers’ evolving requirements.”