OTTAWA - Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilots of the future could be spending almost as much time in a simulator as they do in the cockpit under a revised training regime that has its eyes on the bottom line as much as technology, say internal documents.
The idea was just one of a series of options being examined as military planners look towards the eventual replacement of the CF-18 fleet, possibly by the end of the decade.
Air force officials consulted widely throughout last year with the defence industry about what type of training aircraft might be needed, and what sort of "ground-based systems" were available, say several briefing notes prepared for senior military commanders and top civilian defence officials.
The current training regime is tailored to the CF-18s and will have to be revamped, regardless of whether the Harper government chooses to go ahead with the controversial purchase of F-35 stealth fighters.
The documents, released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, show the training review was ordered by the now-current head of the air force, Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin, while he was still deputy commander.
The fidelity and realism of the last generation of simulators has given military planners the confidence that more time can be spent outside of the cockpit, says an undated briefing from late 2011.
"We're probably going to move towards a training plan that is probably going to be 50 per cent (simulation), 50 per cent flying, which is much different than what we've got now," Blondin said in an interview with The Canadian Press last fall.
"I'm a strong believer in simulation. I can transfer a lot of that training (into) simulation."
Currently air force fighter pilots spend about 20 per cent of their advanced training time practising in simulators and 80 per cent in the air with the actual jet.
Technical journals in Washington report that the U.S. Army is enthusiastic about more simulator time for its helicopter pilots, but the U.S. Air Force remains skeptical and sees "live fire" cockpit time as essential to honing a pilot's skills.
Yet, shrinking budgets in many western militaries have military planners in several nations looking at the increased use of technology in order to save on airframe life, maintenance and fuel.
"We need to create that virtual world," Blondin said.
"If I can do this I'm reducing my operational costs. I am reducing the carbon footprint. It's one way for me to approach the budget restriction we're going to see in the future, so I certainly want to go there."
In the context of the F-35, Blondin said the concept of a virtual training unit has been kicked around, something that would replace an operational training unit and the need to set aside aircraft for instruction.
It would involve setting up a "squadron" of 16 simulators, and when pilots needed actual cockpit time, they could use front-line aircraft.
The concept is particularly important in light of the Harper government's insistence on buying only 65 F-35s, the minimum the air force says it needs to carry out its duties.
Combat aircraft other than the stealth fighter could also be supported through a virtual training regime.
The expanded use of simulators would be for advanced "combat-ready" training.
Many front-line pilots complain they join the air force to fly, not to spend time in a simulator. But Blondin counters that the new training regime is being developed for the next generation of pilots who are more at home in a "virtual world."
Once again in the context of the F-35, Blondin said the simulator training would be "better than anything you can fly at night 25,000 feet over Bagotville," Que, where CF-18s are now based.
He said real-world training exercises, using a series of jets pitted against once another, are expensive, and increase the risk of an adversary monitoring and evaluating pilots.