End of DSALT
(Distributed Synthetic Air Land Trainer)
For many at RAF Waddington, D’SALT maybe something that you have with your fish’n’chips, however, for those intrinsically involved with it at the ABTC, DSALT was a way of life and a training environment that had dominated their lives for the past 12 years!
The realisation in the noughties that improved understanding and appreciation of joint operations was essential and with the continued growth of computer technology and connectivity, a vision of taking advantage of this domain was established. The Air Battlespace Training Centre (ABTC), was developed to provide synthetic training in the virtual environment for various elements that utilise the airborne domain, be that air, land or maritime. Started as a concept by DSTL to provide synthetic training, DSALT became the cornerstone for Army units in their battle preparation for Op HERRICK, providing mission critical understanding and appreciation of the importance of Air land Integration (ALI). Under the programme, the Army were afforded notionally 50% of the training time at the ABTC, with the remaining 50% given to the RAF.
The importance of Joint Fires is one that is well known, but the ability to successfully integrate it had often been a very real challenge; DSALT was the solution for the Army and since 2008, it had been providing challenging and demanding role player simulations for the end user. Attempting to co-ordinate all the actors that DSALT utilised in a live training environment would have been extremely costly and challenging to orchestrate, noting that a vast area would be required. However, the ABTC, through DSALT were able to deliver many of the required objectives in a safe but extremely realistic training environment. With up to 600 virtual entities that could possibly be connected, the training that was on offer was immense. Various ‘Dragon’ exercises were created by the ABTC, with the pinnacle of these being Ex IRON DRAGON, where an Army Division was led by a Brigadier; this was the first occasion at the centre that the senior officer undergoing training was a 1-star.
In the early days, plaudits flowed from all levels as the training was rapidly developed and became increasingly focussed. It had been heard of from troops that had been exposed to the training at the ABTC that “a difficult situation in Helmand was like ‘a Mountain Dragon day’” evidence that what was being provided by the centre was hugely relevant. This led to DSALT being considered by all of those who have been through its doors as having provided invaluable training and exposure to very ‘real-life’ events that has no doubt saved countless lives on the ground whilst deployed.
Only in the ABTC could a Joint Fires Cell operate with three full FSTs (Fire Support Teams), all with JTACS, utilising, Fast Air, Attack Helicopters, Strategic and armed ISTAR and smaller UAVs, all whilst employing the entire UK inventory of surface to surface fires. To consider how you would attempt to try and co-ordinate all these assets in a very realistic and challenging training environment for real, especially when you include maintenance, logistics and manning issues amongst others, the ability to complete a Joint Force approach would be hugely challenging! However, due to the construct of the ABTC and DSALT, challenging scenarios could be developed and employed; missions included the infamous convoy move to the Kajaki Dam, urban fighting in Sanguin province, dealing with an insurgent attack on an Airfield and a host of other demanding missions and vignettes.
With every action recorded both in the virtual environment but also in the ‘tents’ where the FSTs and JTACs were, a thorough debrief was possible, and was available in extremely high fidelity!!! During the debrief, SMEs from the ABTC would provide guidance and offer counsel to those units undertaking the training. The goal of the ABTC was to make all participants better at their core jobs, often with the SMEs taking away some nugget on how they could better serve their compatriots in the other environments. At first, there may have been a degree of tension between the various ‘sides’ during the debrief, however, the trainees quickly came to appreciate the review, guidance and support being offered by the ABTC staff.
Over the 12 years, DSALT has also provided training for Front Line (FL) crews from Tornado GR4, Typhoon and Sentry through role-specific cockpits and rear-crew trainers. Initially with four Tornado GR1 and four Typhoon cockpits, FL crews who came to train at the ABTC were put through their paces in challenging Exercises, such as VIRTUAL FURY. Although the cockpits differed in their appearance to those on the FL, they were there for crews to employ advanced tactics, and were considered to be an ideal opportunity to be ‘exposed’ to realistic threats and appreciate that by following their TTPs that mission success could be achieved.
Over the years, further evolution has occurred, with new environments, connectivity and capabilities added to reflect the evolving military footprint of UK defence, with DSALT1 becoming DSALT2. Changing military operations that UK Defence had intrinsically been involved in, moving from a COIN environment to contingency operations had required the ABTC to maintain pace with this evolution, which it has managed to do so with relative ease, mainly due to the ‘Whole Force’ construct. The FL FJ cockpits benefitted from updates, particularly the Tornado, which was upgraded from GR1 to GR4, which saw capabilities and weapons that crews had on the FL. Over time though, the need to reduce travelling time and the benefits of “plug-and-play” saw the connection of both Lossiemouth and Coningsby Typhoon simulators, thus allowing the ABTC’s simulators to be retired.
Three significant Exercises that demonstrated the utility of being able to remotely connect into the virtual environment started with Ex VIRTUAL MAGIC in 2012, whereby the Sentry Rear Crew Trainer in the ABTC was connected to the NATO E-3A Component at Geilenkirchen, and crews were able to train together up to NATO Secret. Ex VIRTUAL FURY in 2016 saw the integration of the RN Type-45 from the Maritime Composite Training System (MCTS) at HMS Collingwood and the Sea King ASaC. Most recently in 2017/18, Ex RED KITE saw the successful integration with military allies in the synthetic environment, most notably with the US and Canadians, which also saw improved collective debriefing for all the participants. Utilising for the first time a visual database from the interim Defence Simulation Centre for all the international participants was a huge success story for Ex RED KITE and again showed how a future system should be configured.
The creation of type specific QWI course Exercises for both Combat Air and ISTAR to be run at the ABTC is testament of the unique utility and versatility of the facility. A task which has tested individuals going through this training to a high level, it has helped to ensure that RAF crews have the knowledge in which to operate at the highest tempos, both in the UK and overseas.
Over the years there have been many awards bestowed on the ABTC, from an AOC’s commendation, a Royal Aeronautical Society Bronze medal and a QinetiQ innovation award. This had all been enabled by the ‘Whole Force’ from a raft of different companies, including QinetiQ, Boeing Defence UK, Inzpire, Plexsys and finally, but not least the military hosts, both regular and reserve.
DSALT has now been retired, being replaced with the Defence Operational Training Capability (Air) (DOTC(A)), which will initially focus on the air environment before its ultimate integration with DOTC(M) (Maritime) and DOTC(L) (Land) in later years. In-line with CAS’s direction within Project ASTRA, there is an expectation that in the short-term synthetic training will make up approx. 50% of all crew training and by 2040 that this will be closer to 90%. To achieve this, DOTC(A) will be a pivotal capability in achieving this target. The DOTC(A) concept will expand on the foundations set by DSALT and is planned to become ‘live’ mid- 2021 with the expectation of rapid growth and capability being realised from this new facility at the ABTC. Force Elements at their MOBs will connect to a virtual environment established and controlled at Waddington, this will range from a single formation conducting basic drills against a realistic adversary that isn’t limited by peacetime airspace, environmentals, security or training limitations; to a multi asset COMAO conducting cross domain targeting in line with the RAF’s latest Collective Training requirements strategy. Next year at IOC, Typhoon and Sentry will be connected, and with spiral expansion, connections with Lightning, Rivet Joint, Wedgetail, Poseidon, and Protector are planned. This will enable RAF crews from across the UK to train together without the disruption of leaving their home units, using their MOB simulators at the latest modification standards whilst training against an accurate, unrestrained modern threat, both from the air, land or maritime that current live aggressor units would struggle to emulate.
Something to think about next time you pass the shiny new building in the corner of 1 Hangar and the challenging scenarios the team at the ABTC are dishing out!