Improving Air Mission Training Effectiveness
By John Conway
As the prevailing geo-strategic circumstances continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate, and the 4th Industrial Revolution accelerates the global proliferation of advanced technology, how can air forces further develop a competitive advantage through more effective training?
With access to advanced technologies no longer limited to Australia and her allies, competitive advantage in a high-performance context is increasingly characterised in human terms. The situation to be avoided at all costs is allowing aggressors and adversaries to gain advantage, both technologically and cognitively.
This means taking a broader view of mission rehearsal by developing a better understanding of the high-performance requirements of asymmetric warfare and, specifically, the human factors which impact operational decision-making, working at speed, and our tolerance of, and resistance to, task-saturation.
Yet despite the billions of dollars invested annually by western militaries in professional military education and individual and collective training, there appears to be a reluctance to invest in the theoretical aspects of high performance, and how the brain works – or why it stops working – in operationally representative scenarios.
The problem is compounded by a lack of evidence to explain the phenomena, other than by observing the practice of high-performing organisations. This is not a bad thing, because high-performance is fundamentally a deliberate practice, so watching the behaviour of high-performing teams is a good place to start.
But building competitive advantage across an enterprise requires a methodology which is structured, repeatable, measurable, and relevant.
Relevance is important because a process conceived in a flying squadron environment, for example, might not work elsewhere. Moreover, an approach to effectiveness based on ‘the process’ alone is not enough.
Indeed, the sporting world is also coming to terms with the growing need to better understand the workings of the brain to improve performance and develop a competitive human advantage, especially at the very highest levels of the game.
One of the greatest cricketers of all time, Greg Chappell, provides a fascinating insight in his recent book, Greg Chappell: Not Out where he describes the pressures of the game at the highest level, and an institutional reluctance to address what he calls ‘mental blindness’.
He says, “You might have the best eyesight in the world, but sometimes you can’t see, because your conscious mind is going so fast.”
He links his ideas on high performance to the broader interests of the Australian national cricket team, which chime with issues facing the Australian Defence Force writ large, and not just the aviation community:
“In terms of competitive advantage, Australia should be looking more closely at this than anywhere else because of the size of our system,” he writes. “We simply don’t have that many high-quality players to pick from that we can afford to lose them through not exploring all ways to extract their best.
“In recent years, I have no doubt that one of the reasons we have not been able to put together a truly deep and consistent batting line-up is that we have had a number of players who could only stand to benefit from some work on their subconscious ‘software’.”
So where is the business case?
Air power has always been applied in a high-performance regime: a complex partnership between humans and the most sophisticated technology available on the day. A partnership that naturally exploits speed and the asymmetric nature of air power, thereby allowing nations with relatively small populations and highly-trained volunteer forces to deter those potential aggressors who rely on large numbers of people, often conscripts, who act in highly controlled political-military hierarchies.
The training systems necessary to develop advanced air combat power, though, have always struggled to keep pace with the technological advancements of the platforms they represent and, of equal importance, the new mindset needed to perform in an increasingly complex operating environment. But this is where the generation of tempo and asymmetric combat power starts.
In short, it is the ability to design, build, operate, and sustain an effective training environment within real-world constraints which separates the best air forces in the world from the rest. We have the expertise and experience, as well as access to the technology to address the challenge, it just needs to be prioritised and thought through.
AIR MISSION TRAINING
Western air forces have become quite adept at building efficient training systems over the past 20 years or so. Much of this has been driven by necessity rather than choice, with affordability invariably the dominant change factor.
The big winner throughout has been simulation technology, allowing more realistic and immersive training environments especially for teaching the physical skills necessary to fly an aircraft or operate a weapon system.
There are other non-technology measures that have also been successful, such as the concept of ‘downloading’, where training tasks are moved from advanced platforms to those less expensive normally associated with basic syllabi. In other words, why train for a task in a front-line fighter when it could be done for a fraction of the cost in a training aircraft simulator?
Notably, advanced air forces have also successfully developed the concept of a ‘lead-in’ unit to provide a bridge between basic training and frontline operational conversion units, using high utility interim platforms and simulators to provide a more effective and reliable pathway to the front line. These platforms, such as the Hawk 127 and the King Air 350, play an important part in preparing candidates for higher-performance aircraft and more complex missions.
But not all changes have contributed to material improvements in training system effectiveness above and beyond the development of skills and knowledge, important as they are.
On one hand, training system efficiency is relatively straightforward to measure and write requirements for industry – people, technology, and dollars are the key inputs, with qualified graduates being the output. The efficiency metric is simple and easy to measure – the number of qualified humans per input.
On the other hand, requirements for training system effectiveness are much more difficult to define and measure, because the output is human performance rather than simply the number of humans.
As well as being more difficult to buy effectiveness, improvements in graduate performance are also difficult to quantify in the training school. In stark contrast, though, shortfalls are rapidly exposed when graduates arrive on operational units for the first time. Conversion to more complex, dangerous, and high-intensity tasks are where these shortfalls are brutally exposed.
This is mainly because operational units’ supervisory structures are different to those in training schools, with graduates expected to take far greater levels of individual responsibility for mission preparation. And the missions themselves no longer follow standardised and scripted scenarios and processes.
Weather, technology failures, commercial air traffic, background radio chatter, and human limitations stack on top of rules of engagement and the Laws of Armed Conflict to add significant friction and tempo to the air mission, sapping mental capacity on the way.
The linear and sequenced processes of the training world give way to the ‘stacking’ effect of competing real world demands in mission rehearsal. This is an operational environment where an individual rapidly accelerates to the limits of human performance and changes start to appear in behaviour until, ultimately, they max out.
Dealing with task-saturation is nothing new. But air power, and aviation more broadly, have contributed substantially to the understanding of task-saturation by providing the tightly-controlled environment within which it could be studied.
And while different people behave in different ways when maxed out, experience has shown that the response is substantially emotional rather than cognitive. Responses are driven by the human limbic system, which is responsible for – among other things – the ‘fight or flight’ response, and access to memory.
At this point, the brain’s decision-making can prioritise survival over performance, leaving little spare capacity to think logically and consciously about goals and the dynamic situation in hand. In short, the conscious mind gives way to the subconscious, and instincts take over. This is a mentally and physically exhausting place where checklists, rules of thumb, and processes can help, but only to a point.
This is not always the case, however, as some people respond positively to task-saturation and pressure with elevated performance. With so much depending on an individual’s character, it is therefore easy to put abstract human factors in the ‘too difficult’ category by training system-designers and instructors and focus instead on physical skills, knowledge enhancement, and safety.
Knowledge and skills backed up by a strong positive attitude will get you a long way through an aerospace training continuum, but knowing how to recognise the warning signs that you or a team member is working beyond optimal performance levels and maxing out is critical, and difficult.
Those warning signs are often changes in the way we behave and communicate. People react in different ways – some go quiet when maxed out, while others snap and loudly transmit gibberish on the radio or intercom. More dangerous is the tendency to narrow attention to focus on one individual task at the expense of other competing priorities. This becomes acute when linked to high consequence ‘danger or reward’ scenarios, with target-fixation and distraction linked to countless fatal accidents.
Aerospace training therefore has plenty of processes and procedures to prevent the catastrophic downsides of failure. But this can also stifle innovation, conscious thought, and the acceptance of failure as an important element of learning.
Error reduction and performance improvement are frequently conflicting priorities. We are good at the verification of student performance in training, but less so when it comes to validation in mission rehearsal and operations. Rewarding students simply because they have followed the process will improve and verify training system efficiency in terms of graduation targets, but it will fall short of improving effectiveness and delivering the high-performance qualities operational units value most when dealing with uncertainty and tempo.
The most difficult bit is to safely conduct and supervise activities at the very edge of human performance so that mental capacity is increased, and risk is managed to the point where people can fail safely.
And this is why experience and expertise matters in the air domain, regardless of whether the job is a pilot, air combat officer, intelligence officer, air traffic controller, engineer, or any other air mission-related trade for that matter. Experience provides the wisdom to know what to pay attention to at any moment in time, learn quickly, and combine process with goals in both measure and balance.
Experience creates the self-awareness necessary to identify the triggers and the need to act when the voice in your head says “wait, this no longer makes sense”.
Greg Chappell relates an interesting take based on his own experiences. “No coaches talk about it,” he writes. “Sports psychologists don’t know the game well enough to talk about it in specifics, sticking only to general things like being ‘in the moment’ and having processes, which is all good stuff, but there are times when that’s not enough, and it’s a very slow, laborious way to get to where you want to get to. That’s because, under pressure, the emotions kick in before you have a conscious thought: if something frightens or worries you, you’ve leapt backwards before you even know you have. You’ve reacted emotionally before the realisation reaches your conscious mind.”
LOCKING IN SUCCESS
The modernisation of Air Force training systems is well on the way to meeting Defence’s future needs which will involve a more complex, dangerous, and dynamic mission set.
Air mission training systems are very good at exposing the limitations of a candidate’s mental capacity, but relatively little is understood about why and how to build capacity except through repeated and increasingly intense and immersive training scenarios.
These scenarios give the student exposure to new experiences which establish the mental models, schema, and patterns which accelerate the decision-making process and increase performance across the range of tasks needed for flight and the fight.
Looking to the future, there are two ideas which might help improve aerospace training effectiveness.
The first is to establish a specialist Defence, industry, and academic community with a supporting framework to build a greater theoretical understanding of the cognitive and human factors associated with the air mission of the future, and Australian competitive human advantage more broadly.
This could include current activities which relate to physical fitness, however, to address the cognition aspects of human advantage, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on the workings of the human brain, and the theory of situational awareness, learning, cognitive overload, working at speed, decision-making, and the like.
The second idea is to further invest in technology, specifically relating to visualisation. Simulators have demonstrated their worth and continue to improve, for example, by exploiting augmented reality and blending simulated exercises with live events involving a broader cross-section of players in the air mission.
There are also other technologies which contribute significantly to enhance human cognitive performance. For example, Australian company Seeing Machines is a world class technology-provider of eye-tracking systems, which monitor operator performance when distracted, fatigued, or task saturated. Eye-tracking technology shows enormous potential in monitoring behavioural changes as an operator reaches the limits of cognitive capacity, and to better understand what Greg Chappell calls mental blindness.
This technology is already in Air Force flying simulators such as the Hawk 127 Lead-in Fighter at RAAF Base Williamtown, but it has utility across the spectrum of air warfare, as it does with other platforms across the other services.
But the first challenge is to accept increased investment in the high-performance requirements of human factors in modern conflict as a priority. There could be broader benefits to the enterprise, too, like those defence organisations associated with ISR and intelligence missions where sensing, thinking, and a winning mindset are core business.
As Greg Chappell writes, “I experienced this in my own career in down periods. You get anxious, you get caught up with the anxiety, and you stop watching the ball. Thankfully I learned that what you thought about was important. My earnest hope is that others can take it up.”
And finally, the only sensible way of reducing a student’s time in the training system is by improving system effectiveness as well as efficiency; but that’s a trade-off discussion for another day.