The introduction of a new generation of warships is transforming modern navies into versatile, networked and deadly fighting forces. The challenge for today's training programmes is to ensure crew members are able to capitalise on their vessels' combat potential.
The UK's Royal Navy is no exception. With the introduction of advanced Type 45 anti-air destroyers, as well as the ongoing development of the Type 26 frigate and two Queen Elizabeth-Class supercarriers, the RN is remodelling its fleet around the concept of the Versatile Maritime Force, with a new wave of versatile maritime training to bring personnel up to speed.
This training upgrade comes in the form of the BAE Systems-developed maritime composite training system (MCTS), a £108m software-based simulated training system which the RN is describing as "the most radical change to its training for more than 40 years".
Officially launched at Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth and the Maritime Warfare School in Hampshire in December 2011, MCTS is intended to be a future-proofed training system to guide trainees through the operation of the RN's latest vessels, as well as its older platforms.
Commodore Tim Lowe of the Maritime Warfare School lauded the system on its launch. "Today, with MCTS, we have moved to the next stage and certainly in our training delivery we have the ability to train, deliver and employ maritime effect in a far better and a far more effective way than we have ever done before," he said.
Versatile fleet, flexible training
The origins of MCTS stems from the RN's need to move away from its older simulated training system, three simulators that recreated the equipment and operating environments of Type 22, Type 23 and Type 42 vessels respectively. As BAE Mission Systems head of maritime training Jeremy Tuck explained, these simulators were rapidly becoming obsolete, along with the naval platforms they were designed to mimick.
"Some of those were older platforms going out of service in due course, so they needed a solution for the new Type 45 destroyers coming through," he said.
"They also recognised that it wasn't just a new platform type, there was new equipment coming through, and they would either have to do potentially expensive upgrades to those legacy solutions, or if they got a new training solution they could put those new equipments into that."
So MCTS was partly commissioned to make sure the navy would be prepared to train crews for its latest generation of warships, but it also represents a concerted move away from bespoke, inflexible hardware and towards the reconfigurability of a complete software-based system. The flexibility of running operational software-based simulations on standard PC systems supports the RN's re-organisation of its naval training regime to increase efficiency and versatility.
Instead of students having to be immediately funnelled into specific specialisms for different vessels, MCTS can be used to train all recruits in generic, across-the-board skills like electronic warfare before streaming them into defined paths. This flexibility extends to simulated training as a whole, which now takes place in completely customisable rooms that can host simulations of almost any scenario with any number of students.
"In the past, they could only come in, fill a complete simulated ops room of one of those three platforms [Types 22, 23 and 42] and run that platform to do some exercises," said Tuck. "As part of the flexibility of MCTS, they can now come in with a full team, which we call a Platform Warfare Team, or they can bring in their little sub-teams and play a sub-surface scenario, for instance.
"These are reconfigurable rooms, we can operate a whole room, half a room or a quarter of a room. We can set up a complete ship, or just the sonar part of the ship, for example. We can also set up multiple ships of the same type, which they didn't have before. Now if they want to have four or five Type 45s all in the same scenario, acting with each other, we can do that."
MCTS is not designed with only one vessel in mind; it currently incorporates 23 simulated combat systems and can easily be updated with more in the future. As the system is based on modular, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, switching between different simulation set-ups is much quicker and simpler. "You can turn it on in the morning and it looks like a Type 45, then turn it on in the afternoon and it looks like a Type 23," said Tuck.
From a maintenance perspective, using a COTS setup has a number of distinct advantages. Firstly, MCTS's library-based infrastructure makes it faster and more cost-effective to update the system with new platforms (like the Type 26 and QEC carrier), new equipment and new scenarios. The COTS approach also makes system repair and maintenance much more cost-effective due to the generic nature of the system's components.
Simulating the essentials
Inevitably, PC-based simulation software is going to come up short when compared to bespoke simulation hardware in terms of mimicking the physical operating environment onboard a real warship. Tuck noted that while MCTS is perfect for developing operational skills, it's down to live exercises and other activities to give students a physical familiarity with the vessels themselves.
"There's a complete spectrum of training that needs to go together," he said. "MCTS forms a very important part of that, but it's not the totality of all the training they need."
When it comes to familiarisation with the control systems that crews will be using in the field, however, MCTS has it covered. The system provides a perfect recreation of the buttons and screens of real RN warships, and its scenario options are almost unlimited.
Former commanding officer of the HMS Daring Captain Paul Bennett was certainly impressed. "My immediate reaction was 'how on earth can that simulate a ship's system?' There's no hardware. Then the screens come up and you have malleable, exact electronic replicas of each piece of kit," he said.
Beyond the fidelity to real operational software, MCTS offers a comprehensive range of scenarios. "In simple terms, MCTS contains any part of the world, in terms of where you want to set your scenario," claimed Tuck. "It's got the complete range of environmental conditions, from atmospherics, times of day, sea states, wind directions, tides, sonar profiles for water columns and so on. It has the complete set of threats identified by the navy built in.
"You can set the training to be as simple or as complex as you want, depending on whether it's basic training for junior individuals or full-on mission rehearsal for a fully worked-up ship's team. We've got the visuals, so if students look through the electro-optical tracker, they can see there's a ship in the distance or they can see the helicopter on the flight deck through the flight deck camera."
With the system's ability to record and replay scenarios, Tuck believes it could also prove useful as a way of testing new tactics and experimental approaches to modern-day operations like counter-piracy.
"If they want to try a different tactical approach to a scenario, then modify it based on the simulation, MCTS allows them to assess, practice and modify those tactics. So increasingly, because of the flexibility it produces compared to its predecessors, I think we're going to see MCTS increasingly used for that mission rehearsal, current threat, update tactics type of approach."
The future of advanced simulation
In terms of future applications, MCTS is built to easily incorporate new features as the need arises. For example, Tuck mentioned that while an automatic student assessment process within MCTS is not a current requirement, it's a feature that has been discussed as a potential future complement to the system's current record and replay capabilities. He also says that simulation could provide vital visualisation capabilities, highlighting a virtual avatar walkthrough application for the new QEC aircraft carrier in particular.
As the RN continues its move towards greater interconnectivity between systems, Tuck predicted that MCTS could form the core of new connected training. "Will they want to link that to third-party training systems? With Merlin helicopters, for example, a pilot could be in his helicopter, flying around and interacting with a ship, or a Typhoon pilot in his cockpit trainer. So I think we'll see that increasing connectivity when it delivers value and usefulness."
Ultimately, Tuck sees simulation as an increasingly important part of the entire naval process, not just training. "I think throughout the CADMID cycle [the Royal Navy's procurement and life cycle management strategy], simulation supports all of those stages. We use it for early visualisation and experimentation. There's lots of advanced simulation to support aspects of engineering development and integration activities. We use it in training, but also it's getting used increasingly in support of the delivery of services through process modelling and logistics chains throughout the naval enterprise."
So while MCTS will undoubtedly play a central role in the Royal Navy's training for years to come, simulation seems set to sweep through naval design, engineering, procurement and operations as a whole. Whether it's training a new generation of expert personnel or supporting the development of new platforms and equipment, simulation is rapidly becoming an invaluable resource for any advanced naval force.