The U.S. Air Force recently held a wargame that saw pilots flying simulated missions that involved the combined use of podded airborne laser weapons and two undisclosed “future kinetic concepts” in a virtual reality battlefield environment. The wargame highlights the service’s efforts to develop virtual testing environments for use in weapon systems development and its increasing interest in using these digital spaces for use in training.
According to an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) press release, the wargame was conducted at Kirtland Air Force Base between January 24 and 28 in conjunction with AFRL’s Munitions Directorate. It was held as part of the joint Directed Energy and Kinetic Energy Directed Energy Utility Concept Experiment, or DEKE DEUCE, which is designed to explore “synergies between directed energy and kinetic concepts in the future battlespace.” This most recent experiment saw pilots, weapon systems officers, and air battle managers teaming together to operate in a series of what AFRL calls “virtual vignettes” that explored the combined use of “an airborne high energy laser pod and two future kinetic concepts.”
Rusty Coleman, an AFRL’s Munitions Directorate technical advisor, said the experiment offered a unique opportunity to put the directorate’s kinetic weapons concepts in front of pilots and other personnel. “It allowed us to see novel employment concepts that we could not have seen otherwise,” Coleman said. “The pilots virtually flying the aircraft provided feedback beyond what we could have gotten from any other venue.”
There has been growing interest within the Air Force in using virtual reality to augment training, although there has been some pushback from pilots about the reliance on these simulations. "VR has proven to be a tremendous tool for showing specific sight pictures that would otherwise be impossible to show via 2D pictures and traditional academic material," a spokesperson for the 355th Wing told
The War Zone last year, adding that "communities all across the Air Force are starting to adopt similar platforms for multiple different career fields."
Dr. Darl Lewis, an AFRL wargaming principal investigator, said the experiment brought together various Department of Defense research communities to explore how “next-generation” weapons technologies might work alongside one another. “An urgent need exists to rapidly field and integrate viable next-generation weapons, both DE and KE [(directed energy and kinetic energy)], in response to increasing capabilities and aggressive intentions from our adversaries,” Lewis said. “This DEUCE focused on identifying capability and joint integration gaps that can be addressed by systems under consideration, as well as potential future tactics and procedures.”
While AFRL states one of the technologies tested in this virtual experiment was a high-energy laser pod, it’s unknown what the other two “future kinetic concepts” could be. We have reached out to Kirtland Air Force Base for more information about DEKE DEUCE and the notional weapon systems tested in this wargame.
AFRL has been developing a podded Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD, since 2015, although this has been described as a primarily defensive weapon to intercept incoming missiles.
Other USAF laser weapon projects include the Airborne High Energy Laser, or AHEL, which is set to be tested aboard an AC-130J. Several other podded airborne laser systems are in development throughout the Department of Defense including efforts outside of the Air Force, although none has yet to reach operational status. It’s not clear if the virtual laser pod tested in the DEKE DEUCE experiment is related to any of these developing programs.
AFRL also adds that the Office of Naval Research was involved with the DEKE DEUCE experiment, which required “extensive collaboration between dozens of scientists and engineers from both directorates over a period of more than nine months,” according to Lewis. “The Office of Naval Research also collaborated extensively in the lead-up to playing their Elektra battle management concept alongside those of AFRL,” he added.
There is very little known about the Navy’s ELEKTRA program that Lewis mentions, although there are descriptions found in the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget documents under the program elements “PE 0603801N Innovative Naval Prototypes (INP) Advanced Technology Development” and “PE 0602792N I Innovative Naval Prototypes (INP) Applied Research:"
From the description in these budget documents, ELEKTRA would appear to be a networked system that uses using artificial intelligence to help human operators make more rapid targeting and engagement decisions and ensure that the right weapons are selected in engagements in order to produce the most optimal effects possible against specific targets.
AFRL states that a similar Air Force system, the Weapons Engagement Optimizer, or WOPR, has been used in past DEUCE events. WOPR is described as “an artificial intelligence-based battle management system designed to assist warfighter management of complex battlefields” that is capable of analyzing “intricate data systems” in real-time to aid decision making at both the warfighter and leadership levels. The Navy's revolutionary Aegis Combat System has had this capability for years.
Dr. George Foster, a combat control engineer at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren, Virginia, said the recent DEKE DEUCE wargame event allowed the chance for the Navy to integrate ELEKTRA alongside the Air Force’s WOPR system. “Despite the differences in the uniform of our warfighters and the type of platforms they operate, we are still capable of collaboratively building systems that provide a common operational picture while preserving the unique capabilities within the Navy and Air Force,” Foster said.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has previously explored the use of novel simulated testing environments for new systems and capabilities similar to those used in the DEKE DEUCE wargame. In 2021, AFRL teamed with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to develop an environment called ‘the Colosseum’ that offers a "digital approximation of the real world” and a “live, virtual, constructive capability for weapons research and development.” The development of the Colosseum was informed by the same team's work on the digital battlefield spaces used in DARPA's Alpha DogFight trials last year.
AFRL has previously called the Colosseum system a “digital engineering pipeline” that can help “rapidly integrate, develop, and test transformational networked, collaborative, and autonomous, or NCA, weapon capabilities and air platform technologies for future warfighters.” It’s unclear if the Colosseum system is related to the virtual settings used in the recent DEKE DEUCE wargame, which have been described simply as “AFRL’s state-of-the-art simulated platforms.” Commercially-available flight simulators have also been used by the Air Force to train A-10 Warthog pilots.
Whether or not Colosseum and the DEKE DEUCE simulated battlefields are related, AFRL’s wargame experiment further demonstrates the Air Force’s emerging capability to blend digital engineering with simulation, allowing new weapon concepts to be designed and tested in a virtual environment with real pilots and weapons systems operators. Similar concepts have been explored in the service's WeaponONE program, which enables researchers to develop "digital twins" of actual weapons systems so that testing can be conducted at a much lower cost and in a much shorter timeframe than it would in a real-world test range. Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced projects division claims that these digital environments can reduce manufacturing times by up to two-thirds, leading to much lower overhead costs.
With all of this in mind, the Air Force has been actively expanding its digital engineering efforts to more quickly develop and field new technologies. As new emerging threats continue to appear, it will be vital for the Air Force and the Pentagon to be able to rapidly produce capabilities and solutions to address them, and therefore find new ways to design and test them in realistic settings. What that in mind, it’s likely we will see further and increasingly complex experiments involving these virtual environments as they continue to mature.
Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com