In a war where they are outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainian Air Force is turning to the metaverse to train its pilots for the US jets they hope to receive.

The Ukrainian Air Force currently maintains an arsenal of ageing Soviet-era aircraft, including the MiG-29 and Su-25. Meanwhile, the Russian air force uses more advanced aircraft such as the Su-35, which is capable of engaging targets at much greater distances and with more advanced weaponry. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has sought newer Nato-standard fighter jets from Nato and EU members, including the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the F-16 multi-role fighter jet.

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In the past, Nato members, led by the US, have been reluctant to supply these jets to Ukraine, seeing it as an escalation of the conflict and further Nato involvement in a war between non-Nato members. However, in May 2023, the US gave the green light to its allies to begin supplying F-16s to Ukraine, representing a significant military boost for Kyiv.

Virtual skies, real skills

The US has promised to support the training of Ukrainian pilots by providing purpose-built simulators and flight instructors. However, the Ukrainian Air Force has been readying its pilots for months using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) virtual reality (VR) headsets, specialist gaming peripherals, and a high-fidelity multiplayer video game called Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) World to simulate flying the F-16.

DCS World simulates the function of every button, switch, and dial of the F-16 and accurately simulates the jet’s flight and combat capabilities. The fidelity of graphics and simulation, in conjunction with the tactility of a physical hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS), makes for the closest recreation of the F-16 bar professional simulators or training aircraft. Furthermore, the multiplayer nature of DCS World allows pilots to practise group manoeuvres and formation flying. DCS World has a suite of add-on modules for other aircraft, including the A-10. Should the A-10 be supplied to Ukraine, this metaverse-based training programme could be easily adapted to suit another aircraft.

The metaverse enhances pilot readiness

The idea to use COTS VR did not originate in Ukraine. In 2020, the footage was released on YouTube depicting trainee pilots from the US Air Force 355 squadron using Oculus Quest and Rift VR headsets, HOTAS gaming peripherals, and DCS World to train in all aspects of operating the A-10.

A-10 instructor pilot Major Glowa commented: “We are transforming the way we train pilots and will be able to increase quality faster and add remedial training at almost any time. This will expedite the time it takes to get students ready for their flights.”