MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --Marine Air Control Group 28 conducted Exercise Pegasus Flight, at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina on Sept. 30, 2019. Pegasus Flight is a Marine Air-Command and Control System, Integrated Simulated Training Exercise hosted to support unit-level training objectives and improve unit combat readiness. The unique aspect of this training program revolves around the scenario itself, along with the Marines that put endless hours into the program.
This is a new type of training in the world of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, because of the software and its level of detail. According to the scenario-developers, the previous software could program aircraft and combat scenarios, but it couldn’t be fine-tuned to the level of detail in the current software package. The previous software lacked mid-mission changes or adjustments. Once an aircraft had a programed flight-path, scenario developers had to wait until it was completed before changes could be made. The new software can program exactly what weapons virtual aircraft can carry, types of load outs, amount of fuel carried, and even immediate changes of a flight. These detailed, real-time adjustments offered in the new software package are a big reason this training was administered to the squadrons of MACG-28.
There is no specific formal training package for the Marines who design and plan these scenarios. Government contractors sat down for a week to instruct just four Marines on the layout and usage of the software. The contractors also sat in the Battle Lab, a room at MACG-28 serving as a command center for this scenario, supervising and helping to correct any errors.
After the Marines practiced and learned the software, it took more than 600 lines of code to design this scenario in the software called the Flexible Analysis Modeling and Exercise System, Automated Simulation Trainer. The software system uses simple coding or programmed variables that can design an entire simulation, which is far simpler than most programming involved in scenarios of this type.
“Think of a video game that you can create and manipulate aircraft,” said Gunnery Sgt. David Lopez, a tactical air defense controller with Marine Tactical Air Control Squadron 28. “Were building airplanes and radars and we can manipulate them in real-time,” he said. “Whatever we do here, will come across our systems for all of (the sections) and they will be able to see them as if they were real aircraft flying around.”
A four-day scenario was designed to be played out over a week. Participants would the scenario for a few hours each day, and then work on adjusting tactics to improve for the next day of the exercise. The fourth day in the scenario was a replay of the most challenging missions throughout the rest of the scenario. While the scenario could be developed to play 24/7 for the entire week, the main purpose is training on the day-to-day aspects of working in a combat environment, simulated or not.
“We’re only doing about six hours-worth of scenario for each day,” said Staff Sgt. Ismael Betancourt, a tactical air defense controller with MTACS-28. Betancourt also said the scenario will not be playing day and night to focus on ensuring the newer Marines learn the small steps before they implement the big ones.
The scenario included a comprehensive training and readiness plan, centered on practice against a near-peer adversary in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment. Environmentally, there are units spread around the base similar to how MACG-28 would set up in a combat environment, with another group in the Battle Lab controlling the scenario and acting as the command. They call themselves, “White” cell.
The White cell consists of the scenario developers, the Marines who designed the entire “mission,” and some specially-selected Marines with different areas and levels of experience to learn, work and help act as the command aspect of the entire mission. They simultaneously act as the “Red” cell, acting as a hostile force from within the software. All of the Marines being trained within the scenarios are “Blue,” representing friendly forces.
As the training program is developed and refined, the White cell looks forward to unleashing the program’s full potential in future training events.
“We are still limited to our White cell’s size,” said Betancourt. “We can only go through a few rabbit-holes. You can’t keep trying to dig into every situation all the way and explore every possibility.”
The rabbit-holes, said Betancourt, are surprises that have been programed into the software, otherwise known as “injects.” These challenges, which are inserted into the software, can cause simulated aircraft to run out of fuel, or even crash. There can also be injects of un-mapped surface-to-air missile sites, simulated surprise attacks on Blue force facilities, or even communication errors.
The purpose behind these surprises is to challenge the Marines and improve on-the fly problem-solving skills, no matter where they are or what the situation is, said Lopez.
“When we hit play on that first day, I want it to be quiet and only hear (air-traffic) controllers talking,” said Lopez. “But once we start throwing injects, everyone is going to be yelling, trying to talk over each other.”
Another goal of this exercise was to test out the new hybrid Air Command and Control Systems node. Normally there’s a single section in the command center tent, taking all of the responsibility of controlling aircraft if other sections lose their capability. Taking over for several different entities can become very difficult. By adding an additional section, the command environment and process will likely run more efficiently.
Within the Battle Lab, two Lieutenants coordinate the command confirmation of a mission and within seconds switch, and “control” the hostile aircraft involved. Simulating radar and control systems with digital aircraft is the easiest method for this scenario but the Battle Lab is capable of coordinating the same situation with real aviation assets.
“I can even inject a real-world radar and get real-world tracks on AC2S while we are in a simulated environment,” said Lopez.
With this software being a first-time experience for 2nd MAW, MACG-28 wants Marines focusing on the training through the virtual missions in the software, no real assets were connected for this exercise, according to Lopez.
While nobody could be sure how the Blue forces would react to the surprises within the scenario, the training kicked off on schedule Monday morning. Aircraft began to take off and start their simulated missions across fictional countries in a notional northern region of the world. As the Blue cells talked over radio to the simulated aircraft in the scenario, the White cell team members spoke with all the technical jargon of a pilot, enabling realistic training within the scenario. A person could watch as White cell team members talked as a simulated pilot while making simulated aircraft move within the software, simultaneously speaking to the Blue cell and giving instructions to aircraft.
The second day of the scenario went much smoother, as networking and software issues were corrected. The White cell team members had a few further surprises prepared to challenge the Blue cell members. In one example, one section of participants wasn’t able to see enemy aircraft, because of a surprise attack that simulated a disabling of friendly virtual radar. As the participants struggled to work around the problem, more aircraft were added to the scenario to build stress and enable friendly forces within the scenario to focus on their problem solving and planning skills.
On the third day of the exercise, the challenges and surprises increased further, with more likely, realistic situations that would possibly occur in an actual, real-world crisis. Friendly forces were presented with confusing situations, such as intentionally misprinted special instruction sheets, under-fueled aircraft, or a captured Unmanned Aerial Vehicle inject.
At the end of each day came an after-action meeting with all of the participants and scenario designers, to discuss all of the successes and shortfalls in key areas during the scenario. To provide critiques and comments and learn from their mistakes for future missions, leaders of each participating group trained their Marines on different ways to avoid, fix, or improve upon skill-sets. If the Marines failed to fully grasp any of the training objectives, the fourth day of training was designed to focus on remediating participants on previously executed scenarios.
The scenario developers simply observed and provided input on day four, as leaders taught instruction to their sections as the most difficult missions were replayed. The teamwork and communication built between units clarified solutions and built confidence in tactics and equipment, while also improving camaraderie.
On the final day, all participants and trainers met in an overarching after-action meeting to discuss the entire exercise. From the software and the scenario, to the Marines’ abilities to handle tasks and complete missions, every aspect of the training package was discussed. While the tents and computers may have all been taken down and stored, the Marines were able to pinpoint multiple areas within the scenario to build and improve upon for the next set of training.
Lopez said he hopes as more Marines are trained, each participant’s own unique experiences and ideas will contribute to improving future training, allowing the scenario builders to design more complex and challenging situations.
“There’s no reason why we should shelf this and never see it again,” said Betancourt “This is a great starting point for something that can be used forever.”