US forces use some unique techniques to train soldiers to use shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles against enemy aircraft. So how do the crews in the sky learn to defeat similar threats? Enter the Man Portable Survivability Trainer (MAST), the shoulder fired missile simulator of the future.

Textron’s MAST is a threat replicator meant to give aircrews a bad time in peace so that they survive in actual combat. The system takes the elements of other ungainly Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) simulators and packs them into a neat, streamlined, modular package.

The system looks similar to other MANPADS, but in reality, it’s an incredibly powerful light gun packed with passive sensors and computing power. At the front of the MAST tube is a high-power LED emitter that replicates a missile’s launch and gives aircrews warning that they’re under attack. By simulating different shoulder-fired surface to air systems attributes, it can activate an aircraft’s missile launch detection and countermeasures system from over three miles away and in broad daylight.

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Depending on what threat is being replicated, the aircraft’s warning system will give the crew an alert so they’re aware of a missile launch. Depending on how the countermeasure system is set by the crew, it may automatically try to confuse the simulated missile by launching flares or engaging a laser-based directed infrared counter measure system. The crew can also do it in manual mode.

During a live training event, the MAST system simulates MANPADs engagement sequence, including locking the seeker onto the target, firing (with both IR and UV signature) and losing lock due to expendables (flares or BOL-IR chaff) and/or laser countermeasures, as well as evasive maneuvers. Built in video with an information overlay allows for MAST engagements to be debriefed by crews after the mission, showing what worked and what didn’t when it came to defeating the simulated MANPADs shot.

The system can also be tied to nearby ‘smokey SAMs’ which are disposable rockets that give off a rising smokey plume just like a real SAM, allowing pilots to see a replicated missile’s visual signature after launch.

MAST has been in development since 2012, and is now operational in US service at training locales around the globe. It’s also been used at large force employment exercises such as Gunfighter Flag last year and at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA.

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As the system continues to develop and proliferate, MAST units can be further integrated into a networked threat simulation system, such as those found on the Nellis Range Complex, and/or deployed to individual flying units for effective (both in cost and fidelity) countermeasures training year round.

Seeing as MANPADS are proliferating rapidly throughout the world – many of which are in some very nasty people’s hands – giving American and allied air crews an incredibly high fidelity learning tool like MAST is money well spent. This is especially true considering not just the human life involved, but the cost of aircraft themselves. If a $10k missile can take down a $30M low-flying helicopter or jet, spending some cash on a reusable and effective simulator isn’t just good warfighting, it is good economics.

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com