Trainer: Hands-on Wins Hands Down
In many ways, the introduction of the Vertical Launching System (VLS) fundamentally changed the tactical capabilities of the U.S. Submarine Force. Now, some eighteen years after VLS and the Tomahawk weapon system appeared on submarines, VLS training has caught up. The new VLS Trainer in the Torpedoman "A" and "C" School at Groton, Connecticut brings unprecedented realism to the learning process for operations and maintenance of a complex weapon system.
As instructor TM1 (SS) Joseph Nagel explains, the trainer - so large that it cost a little over a million dollars and required the classroom ceiling to be cut open to install it - will pay for itself in improved learning. "It's a duplicate of a submarine's vertical launch tube, and we use it for training "A" and "C" school students, as well as for hands-on "just-in-time" training for Sailors from the waterfront. It provides a Weapons Department the ability to practice maintenance, as well as tube loading and unloading, in a real world/real time environment," he said.
Enthusiastic at having it on board, TMC (SS) Paul Leone, Division Director for TM "C" School, recounts the story of the trainer's development: "Quarterbacked by the Naval Systems Command (NAVSEA) over the last two-and-a-half years and working with a lot of different agencies and people, it's been a real labor of love to create the VLS Trainer. We can simulate Mk-1, Mk-2 and BSY-1 fire control systems, and it will be able to emulate the systems aboard the new USS Virginia (SSN-774)-class submarines."
Until now, getting vertical launch weapons on-line and keeping them there has presented significant challenges since there were no land-based trainers, and the whole burden of spinning up Sailors to operate VLS systems fell to on-the-job training. "Now we have the first VLS Trainer in a Navy schoolhouse at Groton, with Pearl Harbor standing by to receive theirs shortly," said Chief Leone. "We need to demystify the maintenance and operation of Tomahawk and VLS, and this is just the training tool to do that."
Nagel notes that the VLS Trainer has the potential to augment the training of Sailors outside the TM rating. "Now we can expand the scope of instruction to include Fire Control (FT 'A') personnel, who'll be able to use the computer simulation features to train up on their tasks as part of an integrated Weapons Department environment, just as they would aboard a submarine," he said.
Additionally, from a maintenance perspective, the trainer opens up several new opportunities. Said Leone, "We can take shipboard "lessons learned" and turn into them meaningful hands-on training. A lot of desirable maintenance aboard the boats is necessarily limited in scope because of real-world mission demands on tactical weapons and their related components - you can't take significant subsystems off-line without impacting the boat's readiness. Now we can bring a boat's crew in here and work them up on each and every aspect of maintenance training - including the casualty procedures and troubleshooting - without impacting their boat's readiness at all."
Leone sees a productive and busy future for the VLS Trainer, once the instructors themselves are through being students. "The challenge just now is working with our instructors and getting them comfortable and competent working with the trainer. We've moved from a platform/lecture environment to hands-on, so both teaching and learning are coming along. The first thing we need to do is to make sure the curriculum we're creating is accurate, so we're teaching each other and working with our training partners to make modifications before we begin with 'real' students."
And there will soon be lots of real students lining up. Although the TM pipeline will be the primary source, FTs will also be using the trainer. Current estimates suggest that about 140 or so students per year will pass through the facility. This doesn't count the Sailors aboard submarines who will be showing up for "just-in-time" training that has really never been available until now. At the same time, the VLS Trainer will support both team and responsive training, as well as serving some quota of fleet returnees. The school faculty is also developing an advanced course and hopes to see a Weapons Launch Console Team Trainer (WLCCT) to complement the VLS Trainer within a year.
Even as Nagel enjoys the new trainer's "showroom smell," he knows his work is just beginning. "At last," he said, "I've got a way to concentrate on giving my guys real practical skills after they've been discussed in the classroom. Nothing makes for better and faster learning than hands-on experience!"
Bill Kenney is and instructor a the the U.S. Navy Submarine School.
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