Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s concept of dynamic force employment envisions the Navy “banking” readiness to decrease predictability, increase maneuver, and systematically increase the Navy’s sea-going presence.1 For the service to do so will require it to leverage new training methods based on empirical evidence. This will allow individuals and units to meet the goal of accelerated readiness more quickly and effectively.
The Electronic Attack Weapon School (EAWS) at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island has developed one such new method. EAWS has implemented the “NextGen Tactical Learning Platform” (NTLP) during three squadron Electronic Warfare Advanced Readiness Program (EWARP) events, and the results have been substantial.2 We increased the number of training events by greater than 200 percent; operators processed 750 percent more data; and we dramatically increased the number of simulated engagements, all in fewer training hours.3 As important, we collected more than 12,000 objective operator data points for grading and analysis. We did this by maximizing every resource within Naval Air Systems’ “live, virtual, and constructive” (LVC) apparatus.
These results support the notion that the Navy can achieve combat readiness faster, with fewer resources—and bust the extended Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) workup cycles.
Framing the Challenge
Naval aviation training at present is hampered by inconsistent unit resourcing, incomplete synthetic modeling, and limited low-cost training options.4 Yet the fundamental problem is a training system that prioritizes live-fly mission rehearsal events. These use an all-at-once approach to build aviator proficiency—tossing aircrews into the proverbial deep end of the pool.
Consider a typical EA-18G suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) rehearsal. It takes from 10 to 14 hours to plan, brief, fly, and debrief a single such mission. During it, aircrew might execute 100 or so fundamental skills, but they only have one or two chances to practice each individually. Such limited repetition dramatically extends the time it takes to make fundamental skills second nature.
At a larger scale, it is difficult to assess individual operator or unit performance objectively at each career and workup milestone.5 Performance assessment metrics are not based on an empirical analysis of operator (human-machine) weapon system capability. This makes most assessment anecdotal and subjective and prevents the Navy from building a reliable readiness generation model.
Without an empirical methodology, these challenges will foster inconsistent levels of unit and operator proficiency that the service cannot afford.6
Professional Training for Professional Operators
The NTLP offers a deliberate practice approach based around a cognitive methodology to build operator proficiency.7 The method is similar to how professional football teams use position drills to ensure mastery of fundamental skills separate from full-contact scrimmages or games.8 (For those who prefer baseball, consider the objective data gathering that results from this as a kind of “sabermetrics” for the Navy.9)
The NTLP’s training modules correspond to each of the EA-18G’s core mission areas. Each module uses a building-block approach comprised of guided study, interactive film sessions, short virtual/live drills, and focused EA-18G team drills that culminate in a capstone battle problem.10 This allows instructors to assess aviator performance objectively at each milestone for tailored training and ensures performance standards are achieved before moving on to more costly training.11
At EAWS, this approach uses existing technologies to deliver some 200 percent more events in less training time. It also increases training frequency for many skills, helping to make them automatic.
Guided Playbook Study
The NTLP optimizes study time by chunking information into more focused and digestible study products.12 Packaging information in smaller bites allowed warfighters to learn critical information more rapidly while establishing knowledge level norms and standards. Most naval aviation training appears aimed at building engineers; the NTLP aims to build operators.
Interactive Film Sessions
Following academic study, the NTLP uses 15- to 20-minute inexpensive interactive study—“chair-flying” events that allow aviators to learn and practice fundamental skills ahead of live practice. In the SEAD module, for example, we used laminated handouts or electronic media to teach aviators various instrument scan patterns and mechanics without having to burn any jet fuel. With widespread adoption of low-cost training aides such as tablets or gaming headsets, naval aviation could create training efficacy that truly is “anytime, anywhere.”
Position Drills to Build Tactical Foundations
After chair flying, each module uses a series of controlled 45–90 minute “virtual” (simulator) drills that provide operators significant “reps and sets” to build a tactical foundation. During 5–7 runs (sets), density and intensity increase incrementally while aviators practice weapon system skills. In a typical event, operators execute fundamental mechanics 80–100 times. By objectively scoring operator performance throughout the event we can define operator capability and correct errors real-time. Juxtapose this with the exhausting 10- to 14-hour mission rehearsal event that gives operators only a few chances to practice each fundamental skill.
Live flying is necessary, invaluable training, but it is a costly and inefficient method to make operators brilliant at the basics. Just a single chair-fly drill delivers more tactically relevant reps and sets than an entire mission commander syllabus while fundamental weapon system skills become second nature. An unexpected benefit has been that these performance scores have inspired healthy tactical competition in each mission function—a sort of tactical “greenie” board.13
Team Drills to Build Tactical-Agility
Once operators have built the fundamental weapon system skills, they move on to a series of controlled 90-minute multi-element team drills. Each event requires aviators to transition rapidly between 2–3 tactical mission task sets. The virtual environment allows aviators to get reps and sets in making critical transitions. In this focused environment, instructors can unmask objective deficiencies for real-time correction and tailored training prior to subsequent live-fly or large-force exercises.
Define Human-Machine Capability to Weaponize Data
A series of controlled events allow the NTLP to capture individual/unit performance across weapon systems in various mission areas with statistical reliability/validity. Armed with reliable data, the Navy can substantively develop combat-readiness metrics to baseline and assess performance at every individual and unit milestone (sabermetrics).14
Transforming the CSG
Applying the NTLP system beyond aviation and across the force could allow the Navy to: assess and define combat readiness substantively and objectively; improve acquisition and tactics development; integrate new technologies better; build AI mission rehearsal training; define the CSG weapon system capability holistically; and, most notable, accelerate readiness with fewer resources.
Implementing the NTLP across communities and harnessing the intellectual capital resident at weapon schools would permit the fleet to build a collaborative, dynamic readiness-generation model capable of busting the extended workup cycle.15
The “rubber stamp” mentality that comes with turning task/qualification boxes green has not served the Navy well. 16 By using a common empirical method to define capabilities, the Navy can build a readiness-generation model that can weaponize performance data across platforms to transform not only the CSG but the entire fleet into a unified weapon system with the tactical agility to fight and win in any threat environment.
3. More data is available on request from the Electronic Attack Weapon School, NAS Whidbey Island.
4. ADM Phil Davidson, USN, “Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents,” U.S. Fleet Forces Command, 27 October 2017, 18.
5. Davidson, “Comprehensive Review,” 48–49, 54.
6. Davidson, 17–18.
7. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2015), 20–21.
9. Michael Lewis, “Moneyball; the Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” (W.W. Norton: 2013).
10. Ericsson et al, “Making of an Expert.”
11. LT Renato A. DePaolis II, USN, “A High Velocity Learning Approach to Maintain Maritime Superiority,” June 2017, Electronic Attack Weapons School document.
12. F. Gobet, P.C. Lane, S. Croker, P. C. Cheng, G. Jones, I. Oliver, and J. M. Pine, “Chunking mechanisms in human learning,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2007, 5(6), 236–243.
13. The “greenie board” on an aircraft carrier tracks pilots’ landing proficiency as graded by the ship’s landing signal officer.
15. Davidson, “Comprehensive Review,” 17.
16. Hope Hodge Seck, “Navy: Training for Surface Warfare Officers Is Failing Them at Sea,” military.com, 2 November 2017. Seck wrote, “In each of the four mishaps, the qualification of individuals for specific watch stations did not translate to proficiency to safely execute the mission, the report finds. . . . In all four mishaps, there was a gap in watchstander training, their experience, and/or their proficiency, and their ability to conduct the tasks they were assigned to perform.”