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What GAO Found

The three lead Air Force major commands—Air Mobility Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Combat Command—all utilize training requirements review boards composed of subject-matter experts to determine training requirements for specific aircraft. These boards determine which training requirements can be completed in live or virtual environments based upon factors such as specific combatant command mission requirements and the capabilities of fielded simulators and networks. All three commands use a combination of live and virtual approaches, but the mix varies by aircraft. For example, Air Combat Command specifies that approximately 25 percent of its training requirements could be met virtually. The other two commands conduct approximately 50 percent of their training virtually.

The Air Force has taken steps to manage its virtual training efforts, but its approach lacks some key elements of an overarching organizational framework needed to fully integrate efforts and address challenges. It has reorganized offices and undertaken various initiatives intended to enhance existing virtual training capabilities, but has not designated an entity to integrate these efforts or developed an overarching strategy to define goals, align efforts, and establish investment priorities. As a result, major commands have developed their own investment plans and standards for acquiring and fielding virtual training systems, which are often not interoperable and require costly, time-consuming work-arounds to allow personnel to train together and with joint and coalition partners. GAO’s prior work has found that a designated entity with the necessary authority and resources and an overarching strategy are critical elements of managing organizational transformations and meeting long-term goals and agency missions. In the absence of an approach that establishes clear accountability and a strategy to guide its planning and investment decisions, the Air Force will continue to be challenged to guide the efforts of its commands in planning for and investing in virtual training, ensure these efforts meet the highest priority needs and are synchronized to avoid gaps or future interoperability issues, and maximize available resources.

The Air Force estimated it could save about $1.7 billion in its training program by reducing live flying hours and taking other steps, such as increasing the use of virtual training, but it lacks a methodology for determining the costs of virtual training and therefore did not consider these costs in its estimate. The Air Force estimated savings based solely on reductions in live flying hours without considering expenses such as those incurred for aircrew to travel to simulators, contractor personnel to schedule and operate simulators, and purchase of additional simulators. GAO has found that decision makers need visibility over financial data to meet agency goals and effectively use resources. Identifying virtual training costs is challenging because data is spread across multiple program elements in the Air Force’s accounting structure. The Air Force completed an initial study in September 2011 that identified some costs related to virtual training, but it concluded these data might not be complete. In the absence of taking further steps to determine the universe of costs and a means to collect and track data, the Air Force will be limited in its ability to make fully informed investment decisions about the mix of live and virtual training in the future.

Why GAO Did This Study

Over the last 20 years, the Air Force has sought ways to expand its approaches to meeting aircrew training requirements, including the increased use of virtual training. In 2012, the Air Force reduced live flying hours, which it estimates will save $1.7 billion in fiscal years 2012 through 2016, as part of its response to the Secretary of Defense’s efficiency initiatives. GAO conducted this study in response to House Report 112-78, accompanying a bill for the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed GAO to review the status of the military services’ virtual training programs. Specifically, GAO assessed (1) how the Air Force determines the mix of live and virtual training to meet training requirements; (2) the extent to which the Air Force has an overarching organizational framework to guide, oversee, and integrate its virtual training efforts; and (3) the extent to which the Air Force considered costs related to virtual training in estimating potential savings from its training efficiency initiative. To do so, GAO analyzed guidance and other documents, visited virtual training facilities, and interviewed officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the Air Force.

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GAO recommends that the Air Force designate an entity to integrate its virtual training efforts, develop a strategy to align virtual training initiatives and goals, and develop a methodology to collect virtual training cost data. DOD concurred with GAO’s recommendations and identified planned actions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To develop a fully integrated management approach to guide virtual training efforts and investments, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to designate an entity that is responsible and accountable for integrating all of the Air Force's virtual training efforts, including the development and enforcement of interoperability standards across virtual training systems, and investment planning;
Closed - Implemented
In response to our recommendation, the Air Force designated Air Force headquarters office A3/5 on March 1, 2012 as the office responsible for modeling and simulation. We consider this action meets the intent of our recommendation and is now closed implemented.
Department of Defense To develop a fully integrated management approach to guide virtual training efforts and investments, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to develop an overarching strategy to align goals and funding for virtual training efforts across all Air Force major commands. This strategy should at a minimum contain elements such as results-oriented goals, performance measures, and a determination of resources needed to achieve stated goals. In addition, this strategy should show clear linkages between existing and planned initiatives and goals.
Closed - Implemented
In September 2017, the Air Force issued the Air Force Operational Training Infrastructure 2035 Flight Plan, which describes the Air Force's vision for a realistic and integrated operational training environment and incorporates the desirable characteristics of a comprehensive strategy. The Flight Plan establishes 13 lines of effort to achieve this vision. Each line of effort includes the office of primary responsibility and required tasks, deliverables, and time frames. One line of effort called for the development of a funding strategy for operational training infrastructure capabilities. That funding strategy was issued in December 2017. By developing an overarching strategy, the Air Force is better positioned to guide virtual training efforts and investments.
Department of Defense To improve decision makers' visibility over the costs related to virtual training, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to develop a methodology for collecting and tracking cost data for virtual training and use this cost data to help inform future decisions regarding the mix of live and virtual training.
Closed - Implemented
In response to our recommendation, the Air Force released the final FY15 Program Objective Memorandum Preparation Instruction on March 11, 2013 that directs the identification of specific elements of expense investment codes for live and virtual training.

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