Hopefully, Air Force training ranges in Arizona will offer much better training to pilots soon. Environmental studies are in work near Davis-Monthan AFB to determine the impact of updating flight restrictions in the area.
The American mid-West offers some of the best training grounds in the world for the military. Our allies send their aviators and maintainers to the States to benefit from that training. Areas like Yuma Proving Grounds, Utah Test and Training Range, and the Nellis Range offer excellent visibility, (usually) good weather, and miles and miles of wide-open spaces. Add to that the region’s varied topography, and you wind up with an area that can offer simulations of most countries’ landscapes.
The ability to fly and fight in a simulated environment has been central to pilot and weapons system advancement and proficiency since the Wright military flyer first took to the skies. In much the same way baseball teams practice and practice and practice before they actually play, aviators need that as well. In baseball, teams often “scrimmage” against each other to build team cohesion, try out new ways to play, and hone their overall skills in a (relatively) non-competitive way. Both teams understand this is all about proficiency. Military aviators use test ranges to “scrimmage” amongst themselves, other services, and even allied nations.
In 2014, the Air Force issued the 2025 Air Test and Training Range Enhancement Plan to Congress, outlining testing range needs and requirements through 2025. In the report, emphasis is placed on the fact America has been fighting a counter-insurgent, low-tech war for the last decade. Training has focused on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the detriment of more peer-adversary operations. As America is emerging from the “Forever War,” the need to ramp up our skills against more technologically advanced threats is becoming more evident.
China and Russia are the two big-hitters the US needs to be prepared for. Both nations spend billions outfitting and training their militaries, and neither send many smiles towards Washington. According to Statista, in 2020, the US military complex had a budget of $778B compared to $252B in China and $62B in Russia. As someone who has met with Russian Air Force members and toured a couple of their aircraft, that money isn’t going to creature comforts; it’s going towards lethality.
The Air Force is researching three different options to change flight restrictions in Arizona range areas. The fourth option on the table is to leave everything as-is and not meet training requirements. Proposed changes would allow the Air Force to fly faster, lower, and longer. Anyone who has lived near an Air Force base has probably grumbled about the noise at some point. Those near fighter bases grumble every day, and B-1B neighbors throw their hands up in disgust. Altitude and speed are some of the most limited restrictions due to the inherent danger posed to civilians on the ground. Well, that and the PR issues stemming from noise complaints.
Changes to flight restrictions in Arizona should enhance the ability to “check more boxes” in the training arena in a shorter amount of time. Other flight ranges may offer lower-level flying, supersonic flight areas, or simulated ground threats, but it can take hours to get there. Those hours count against the duty day and burn up a lot of gas, so training is sacrificed to required crew rest. In addition, longer flights just to get to training areas require coordination between airfields, radar sites, and even tanker support.
Having the chance to operate locally cuts out a lot of the clutter involved otherwise. Pilots can hop in, taxi out, and be over the range in minutes compared to hours. Increased flight hours allow crews to hone their night-flying skills and train for real-world scenarios rather than get-in-where-you-can training situations. Increased simulated ground-threat packages provide more in-depth realism for combat flight training. These changes combined can result in a more lethal, well-trained force.