Hill unit sustains key combat training device, finds savings

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — War isn’t a video game, but the digital battle space often resembles one and a Hill Air Force Base unit is helping to sustain and improve a key training component for Air Force and Navy pilots maneuvering in that space.

The P5 Tactical Combat Training System is a missile-shaped pod that attaches to the weapons rack on a variety of aircraft. The sustainment of the system falls to the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center’s Aerospace Dominance Enabler Division. 

Used on and off training ranges around the world (during exercises like Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada) by American pilots and their allies, the pod has a GPS system that allows trainers and mission planners to track an aircraft’s position in flight. Its “brain” interprets the data and records the aircraft’s movements and actions in 3-D space. Prior to the mission, planners are able to provide pilots with a simulated weapon’s suite they can deploy during the combat mission, providing real-time kill notifications.

The system interfaces with similar technology used by ground and sea forces and can support 100 aircraft fitted with pods in a single exercise, like a gigantic game of “Battlefield.”  

All of the mission information is stored on a data card and can be replayed and analyzed by pilots and instructors on a ground system after the mission is over.

“The system allows us to reconstruct the battlespace and replay our air-to-air maneuvers, telling us when we gain or lose an advantage in the fight,” said Lt. Col. George Watkins, commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base. Watkins and his unit now fly the F-35, but he trained with the pod as an F-16 pilot. “It prepares us by sharpening our skills and allowing us to keep the advantage when we go into combat.”

There’s just one problem — if the system were a video game, some of it would be running on pre-Nintendo technology.

“A few of the circuit cards in the pod were designed in the 1980s,” said P5 engineer Phillip Smith.

The Aerospace Dominance Enabler Division is working diligently to not only support pod maintenance shops in the field, but also to improve on the pod’s technology. The Air Force doesn’t have plans to acquire a new training pod in the near future. The division’s challenge is to keep the P5 relevant for the next decade.

To help in this effort they’ve constructed a lab in their office. Just behind the cubicles and through a small break area, there are two work benches filled with circuit cards, diagnostic tools and other components and an entire pod hooked up to computers where they can test the individual systems.

The team is working on redesigning aspects of the system, most notably: the GPS system, the Advanced Digital Interface Unit (the pod’s “brain”) and the transceiver (the pod’s communication system).

“Because the technology is so old and the original manufacturer owns the data rights, it is extremely expensive to replace parts when they quit on us,” Smith said.

If the team can come up with an improved design for these parts, they won’t have to buy original parts anymore and can potentially save the Department of Defense tens of millions of dollars over the remaining program life.

The unit is close to completing an upgrade to the pod’s nearly-obsolete GPS units. The new units will perform better and be at least $5,000 per-unit cheaper to produce.  And, there are other opportunities to upgrade and save.

“As an example, if the pod’s brain fails, it’s somewhere in the range of $25,000 to replace. We’re estimating our improved version will cost about $10,000 when complete,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of money when you have about 1,500 Air Force and Navy pods out there.”

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