At what cost efficiency?
One of the more difficult projects for Defence to conceive, plan, and execute, is an enterprise training system – and no more so than a defence aviation training system which requires a sophisticated trade-off between effectiveness, efficiency, and safety.
Get the trade-off wrong and you break the pipeline, impacting every Force Element Group and the joint force writ large. The risk migrates to frontline units where the cost of mitigation becomes catastrophic in terms of mission success and, invariably, accidents.
A central problem for training system decision-makers is that measures of efficiency and safety are far easier to define and express than measures of effectiveness. Moreover, efficient and safe systems are also those which the capability life cycle (CLC) – and by extension industry – is optimised to deliver.
And while an efficient and safe training system is not a bad outcome, it is suited to equipment-specific missions in peacetime operations while the future demands of multi-domain combat will need a high-performance enterprise ‘system of training systems’ with effectiveness primus inter pares.
That said, maintaining enterprise training systems relevant to current and future threats has always been a challenge for commanders and planners. However, it is the emerging rate and scale of mission transformation that has the potential to overwhelm the traditional approach to training system design and delivery. This will result in new ADF members being ill-prepared for the types of tasks and activities necessary to create advantage in a strategic competition.
Emerging operational circumstances demand measures of effectiveness geared towards better quality graduates, with enhanced cognitive skills, who are very good at learning something new. This involves experience and practice so that simpler tasks become automatic and mental capacity builds to the point where a candidate reaches the required graduation standard for the next level of a career-long learning continuum.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
With the AIR 5428 Phase 1 Pilot Training System (PTS) up and running, the AIR 5428 Phase 3 Air Mission Training System (AMTS) is a bold and ambitious project. It is intended to meet future operational challenges by combining the specialist ab initio training requirements of a broad and highly specialist family of non-pilot aircrew, and the operational support workforce, into a single system located at the Air Academy at RAAF East Sale in Victoria.
As with the legacy PTS, the current AMTS is not broken, with many of its training services and equipment delivered today by large, medium, and small Australian companies. So why change something that is fundamentally working? And if equipment-specific training has served us so well thus far, again why change?
In short, the biggest factor impacting enterprise training systems is a rapidly accelerating operational tempo. Consequently, the AMTS must be substantially modernised to meet Defence’s future needs which involve a more complex, dangerous, and dynamic mission set, and a faster than current process to put many more ab initio candidates into productive service.
But – as the new PTS ramp up has demonstrated – it is notoriously difficult to elicit and manage aviation training system requirements that invariably use candidate throughput and airframe hours to define success. It is also much simpler to ask industry for a greater output of candidates in a shorter timeframe than it is to articulate in precise terms the enhanced human cognitive performance necessary to participate in the multi-domain operations of the future.
This was evidenced during AIR 5428 Phase 1 which took years to deliver, and the AMTS is not immune from a similar fate. It is a derivative of Project AIR 5232 – Air Combat Officer Training System – which released its first Request for Information (RFI) to industry in 2009.
AIR 5428 Phase 3 therefore represents a once-in-a-generation investment opportunity to build an international exemplar AMTS. Whether or not the CLC can deliver both the technical and non-technical AMTS requirements depends upon how the Commonwealth frames its approach to market in the next year or so, and how it organises to manage both project as well as enterprise risks.
Given the operational imperative and time pressures, AMTS now runs the risk of focusing too much on efficiency rather than the higher order need to develop longer-term enterprise combat effectiveness.
The Air Academy was formerly known as the Air Training Wing and was created in 2019 to bring together a number of different ADF aviation training schools in one location with common and modularised curriculum elements. The central idea is that, while Navy and Army officer aviation candidates (OAC) have already predetermined their speciality, RAAF OACs have a broader range of options across multiple aerospace career streams matched to their aptitude and the needs of the service.
According to an RFI released in September 2020, the AMTS will train air force air battle managers, air mobility officers, air traffic controllers, electronic warfare officers, maritime patrol and response officers, operations officers, and weapons system officers.
In platform terms this includes the F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon, MC-55 Peregrine, and KC-30A Multirole Tanker Transport. Unmanned and space capabilities are sure to be absorbed into scope in the fullness of time.
The purpose of the RFI was to seek an understanding of the capability options, technologies, and additional considerations related to the AMTS to assist the Commonwealth to develop its requirements for the project.
The RFI described three primary elements of the AMTS – an integrated learning environment (ILE), ground-based training, and airborne training – all set within the context of a new purpose-built facility at East Sale.
While the intent of the AMTS is laudable – as is the establishment of the Air Academy – the RFI identified the AMTS as much more than a training system. The term training system is more appropriately applied to the individual constituent specialisations defined as the air traffic control training system, weapon system officer training system, air battle management training system, and so on.
Successful execution now relies upon industry having the domain understanding, capability, and capacity to deliver such a broad and highly specialist scope of requirements within an acceptable financial, technical, and schedule risk framework.
It requires industry teams that have a systematic understanding of the mission, the technology and, most importantly, people since the AMTS is ultimately configured to deliver a human advantage.
The CLC certainly has the flexibility to deliver on all counts, but some tasks are easier than others.
THE EASY STUFF
Aviation training systems are by their nature resource intensive, and for good reason. They represent one of the most highly supervised and governed areas of Defence. As well as instructing graduates, the AMTS must operate within a strict Defence Aviation and Safety Authority (DASA) operational and technical airworthiness framework that needs people, and lots of them.
The human demand extends beyond instructors at the academy, to the Systems Program Office (SPO), Air Force Training Group, and Air Force Headquarters, among others. And while the overall demand for people is unlikely to change significantly, many of these tasks can be transferred to contractors, albeit with care to maintain the essential military ethos within the enterprise. Reservists play a significant part, too.
Other inputs to the AMTS include aircraft, simulators, schoolhouses, training management systems and the like, but these are all relatively straightforward to deliver and measure contractually within the CLC.
The CLC is, however, biased towards the management of technical risk and the delivery of defence materiel efficiently and safely within proven systems engineering and complex project management principles. And Australian defence industry is incentivised to deliver projects within a framework which substantially values companies with an engineering and project management pedigree. So there is no significant shortage of capability or capacity here.
But in terms of efficiency the Commonwealth needs to achieve more and faster with what is likely to be a similar level of input. This will require a fundamental re-think of the curricula and new ideas about how, why, and where the training needs to be conducted, especially to increase output and tempo.
Western aviation training systems during the Cold War were so successful in matching demand with supply because they ran multiple courses at short, regular intervals. This allowed candidates to be ‘back-coursed’ if they needed extra time to learn, or if they became sick or injured, among other reasons.
It was a high tempo enterprise that never stopped, and it was not unusual to see courses graduate with only one or two graduates from an initial course of, say, 12. Any spare capacity was readily filled by international partners. And course graduations were often reunions with candidates already well into the next stage of training at other bases. The bottom line was that the front line was rarely undersupplied with the operational units’ ability to absorb ab initios a limiting factor.
That said, this is where it starts to get hard and where tension builds between the management of efficiency, effectiveness, and safety, and where the emphasis changes from training to learning.
Identifying the temporal ‘sweet spot’ for course duration and graduation standard will require specialist judgement and domain expertise, combining art with science and training with learning. But its most important step in achieving AMTS efficacy relates to the balance between physical equipment-specific skills, and the more abstract cognitive skills.
Herein lies true value for money for the AMTS.
THE HARD STUFF
Skills are learned by doing and this involves experience and practice and, therefore, time. But different candidates learn at different rates which requires the training system to have utility, flexibility, and responsiveness – attributes that focus on developing individual human performance.
In the context of the AMTS, human performance relates directly to the ‘big three’ enhanced measures of effectiveness: situational awareness, decision-making, and air-mindedness.
Each of these exists in the mind and is inextricably linked to individual experience, internal mental models, and schema. Each is also subject to multiple feedback loops which are fundamentally human and non-linear in nature; these measures step beyond training and emphasise human learning.
The AMTS therefore needs to develop candidates with an understanding of the theory and practice of situational awareness, decision-making, and air-mindedness, with each viewed as more than an ethereal or intellectual pursuit. Each relies upon skill as well as knowledge, behaviour, and attitude, and therefore can be formally trained.
This is important because candidates need the maximum opportunity to practice and gain experience in their career of choice, leveraging their motivation and attitude to avoid being moved prematurely to another specialisation before they have had the chance to adapt to the physical and mental challenges of aviation-related roles.
Research by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool published in Peak provides valuable insight into the value of experience and practice in terms of cognitive performance. “Having students create mental representations in one area helps them understand exactly what it takes to be successful not only in that area but in others as well,” they found.
“Most people, even adults, have never attained a level of performance in any field that is sufficient to show them the true power of mental representations to plan, execute, and evaluate their performance in the way that expert performers do. And thus they never really understand what it takes to reach this level – not just the time it takes, but the high-quality practice.”
Ericsson’s research into high performers has shown that developing your first high-performance mental representation makes it much easier to learn new ones because you know how to build them – or how to learn. The AMTS needs to provide as much opportunity as it can for candidates to practice their skills and build their mental representations so that, when they get to operational units, they are already quite proficient at basic airmanship and decision-making, regardless of the equipment they use.
This is also why AMTS candidates must conduct the majority of training in a live flying environment. Technology helps, but it must be part of a blended live and virtual training regime which values effectiveness over efficiency to deliver the high-quality practice Ericsson describes.
The virtual environment is simply there to build and test combat effectiveness, not to save money. Above all, the live environment is where the AMTS builds character in the form of courage, resilience, agility, and confidence. The AMTS is the start of a career journey defined by stress, failure, and success in equal measure, and establishes the foundations for a complex relationship between humans, machines, and a hostile air environment.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Perhaps the greatest enterprise risk to AIR 5428 Phase 3, therefore, is a bias towards pragmatism resulting in efficiency being substantially prioritised over effectiveness. This could become an ‘Achilles Heel’ in the design, build, operation, and sustainment of the AMTS if not countered by the more philosophical elements of the Air Force raison d’etre – fundamentally about the complexities of flying, and the value of learning by doing in building situational awareness, decision-making, and airmanship skills in a hostile airborne environment.
This contest between pragmatism and philosophy in the generation of air power is nothing new. As Winston Churchill said, “Air power is the most difficult of military force to measure or even to express in precise terms. The problem is compounded by the fact that aviation tends to attract adventurous souls, physically adept, mentally alert, and pragmatically rather than philosophically inclined.”
A more philosophical approach involves an increased emphasis on cognitive skills and a willingness to challenge the existing way courses are managed and executed. This needs the AMTS to be viewed as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Increased utility, flexibility, and responsiveness linked directly to front line requirements is the goal.
A philosophical approach also involves the opportunity costs involved in setting up for the future where space operations and human-machine teaming will place additional demands on Defence for a larger, more specialised and experienced workforce needing greater capacity and capability from its aerospace training systems.
All of this needs the easy stuff, the hard stuff and, above all, the right stuff.
What ultimately matters, though, is that AMTS candidates meet the graduation standard. That ab initio graduation standard is substantially measured in terms of a candidate’s character and ability to demonstrate proficiency in generating future combat effectiveness through enhanced situational awareness, decision-making, and air-mindedness.
In all cases, experience matters.
This article was published in the May-June 2021 issue of ADBR.