Airmen Train Today, Deploy Tomorrow

February 2008
By Rita Boland

U.S. Air Force special operations crews use a variety of training devices, such as this C-130 simulator. Special operations forces aircrew and combat search and rescue aircrew are trained through the Aircrew Training and Rehearsal Support II (ATARS II) program.
Aircraft simulation and instruction enable troops to hit the ground running immediately after graduation.

The increased operational tempo for special operations forces over recent years has mandated a new training plan for their aircrew. In an effort to transition fully qualified crew members to the field faster and to accommodate upcoming airframe changes, various agencies have come together to fund and update a major U.S. Air Force instruction program.

The Air Force has altered its Aircrew Training Rehearsal and Support (ATARS) program with a new 10-year contract valued at more than $1 billion. Under the agreement, the program receives the name ATARS II, and the Air Force will judge the private contractor, Lockheed Martin, with new performance standards. The company will continue to operate the program’s simulators and conduct classroom instruction, but under previous contracts, the company was evaluated on the criterion to make each simulator available for a certain number of hours during the day. With the new award, Lockheed will be rated on the number of students who go through the program on time. “We’re judged on training delivery,” explains Tom Dorsey, ATARS program director for Lockheed Martin .

The company must graduate a predetermined number of fully trained students and must provide all the resources for the task. In the program, aircrew from Air Force special operations forces (SOF) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) receive instruction.

Under the new method, the government will have a better idea of the value it receives from the ATARS resources. “The value is the trained warfighter,” Dorsey says. “If we get the trained warfighter out to the field on time, then all the money spent in that environment was worth it.”

The length of the contract resulted from forthcoming requirements. The Air Force will pick a contractor to develop a new CSAR aircraft soon, and other changes and milestones are on the horizon for various programs and airframes. Air Force officials believe that for ATARS II to accomplish its goals, a decade-long contract is necessary.

Program officials say ATARS II represents the next-generation training system for special operations crews. Training is conducted at Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB), New Mexico; Hurlburt Field, Florida; Harrisburg Air National Guard Base, Pennsylvania; and Fort Rucker, Alabama. The program is expanding to include Cannon AFB, New Mexico, which is home to the 27th Special Operations Wing. ATARS II is a fully networked, distributed environment, but Dorsey states that the network is used infrequently, although at Hurlburt Field in particular, more distributed mission operations work is conducted. At each site, the contractor provides academic and simulator training, courseware support, local area network and computer support, and engineering services.

ATARS II includes simulators for the C-130 Talon, Spectre and Shadow; the MH-53 Pave Low and MH-60 Pave Hawk; and the CV-22 Osprey and will incorporate new SOF and CSAR aircraft as they come online. New simulators for current airframes also will be added to the program. The Air Force expects the number of simulators at Kirtland alone to double in the next six years.

Some of the aircraft involved in the program require as many as 14 crew members who all must be integrated and coordinated. Each position receives individual training, but before instruction ends, all of them have worked together. All aircrew positions, including pilots, navigators, engineers and gunners, are trained on all the associated equipment. If a unit sends only a partial crew to the schoolhouse, instructors fill the empty positions.

An instructor, left, oversees loading of a C-130 as part of loadmaster training in the ATARS II program.
The ATARS II instructors are experienced with SOF and CSAR missions. Often, the leaders of units who come to train at ATARS locations were subordinates of the instructors previously. This level of expertise keeps the program especially relevant within its target communities. ATARS staff members are often asked how certain actions or tasks should be carried out or how problems should be addressed in operations. Program personnel are involved with the development of the tactics, technology and procedures used in the real world, not just in training.

To meet the requirements of ATARS II, Lockheed Martin has restructured its approach to the contract work, including creating an integrated product team (IPT) lead. The lead has the sole responsibility of ensuring that the training environments are prepared and that all resources to support the simulator are available. Dorsey describes the IPT as the “traffic cop” for the simulator.

Also on the team are personnel whose purpose is to remain abreast of the latest technology. The ATARS team conducts studies, brings new technologies forward and decides how to best insert future technology beneficial to ATARS II.

Dorsey expects visuals to be a major technology improvement in the next few years and says the staff is always looking to improve the feel of the simulators. The training must resemble field conditions exactly because many of the students will see action in combat areas shortly after program completion—some in less than a month after instruction. If any modifications are made in the air platform, similar modifications must be made in the simulators. Program officials claim that bad training is worse than no training at all, and when aircrew expect certain equipment—such as a switch—to be in a certain place, it needs to be there.

ATARS II personnel are trying to move more training out of the aircraft to the simulator and from the simulator to the desktop. That way, when students enter the actual aircraft, they spend less time learning how to fly and more time understanding the tactics they will use. Dorsey says that an Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) goal is to complete a high percentage of training in the schoolhouse.

AFSOC is only one agency providing funding, support and cooperation to ATARS II. In addition to that Air Force command, the U.S. Special Operations Command, Air Combat Command and Air Education and Training Command all participate in the program. The contracting authority at Hill AFB, Utah, is responsible for tracking funding and providing contract management direct support.

The various commands involved have invested significant amounts of money into the ATARS training program, in particular to improve the fidelity of the simulators. The increased fidelity enables the transition of training from the aircraft to the simulator and increases the Air Force’s capacity to move students through the schoolhouse. Jeff McCampbell, the 58th Training Squadron project officer at Kirtland AFB, shares that with the saved funding and faster training, organizations can send more students through the program, though a lack of actual aircraft on the ramp can still inhibit the Air Force’s ability to complete ATARS training in a timely manner. Some older aircraft in the fleet need refurbishment and repairs, removing them from operational use during upgrades.

Increasing the fidelity of the simulators also facilitates types of training that are impossible in real aircraft. For example, in the CV-22 simulator at Kirtland, trainers can simulate actual combat conditions. Weapons are fired at the aircraft, and damage is simulated so crews have to struggle to bring the aircraft home.

McCampbell explains that the ATARS II program is benefiting the Air Force and special operations community, although it still does not train as many personnel as are needed. “I think if you just look at the focus of the United States over the last few years, special operations has really risen to the top,” he states. “The demand for special operations aircrew is really dramatic.” The ATARS II team has to struggle with constant deployments and the growth in the field. “We’re deadly serious that when they leave, they’re ready to go to war,” McCampbell says. And the deployment cycle takes its toll in more ways than one. The manning level for officer instructors is declining because the personnel are needed in the field.

The reductions in manning because of deployments and Air Force downsizing make contractor support critical to ATARS II success, according to McCampbell. Too few active duty airmen remain to perform the work, and superior training is essential because the program provides the critical training needs that free up the Air Force personnel to fly their aircraft. McCampbell shares that his goals are to ensure that ATARS II provides combat-ready aircrew on time, every time, and that everyone who deploys comes home safely.

Dorsey emphasizes the importance of those goals to the Lockheed Martin personnel by explaining that several team members have children flying the aircraft in war zones. “It’s kind of a different dynamic when you’re training your children as opposed to this person you don’t know,” he shares.

Web Resources
Cannon Air Force Base:
U.S. Special Operations Command:
Air Force Special Operations Command:
Lockheed Martin:


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