August 22, 2010: Britain has become the latest NATO ally to adopt the American 3-D mission planning software for its aircraft crews in Afghanistan. Mission Planning software is nothing new, it's been around for decades. But the 3-D stuff American pilots use is in a class by itself, and other NATO pilots noticed that when they got to Afghanistan.
Mission planning software enables pilots to plan, and even simulate, missions. These missions can involve anything from one aircraft (for, say, a photo reconnaissance mission), to large raids (employing dozens of aircraft, including electronic warfare planes, bombers, fighters and aerial tankers). These mission planning systems are highly classified, but some details are known.
For several decades now, the Air Force and Navy have been using computerized systems that look a lot like the flight simulation games you play on your PC. But the military versions involve a lot more technical detail, like fuel consumption and frequencies for electronic equipment. By the 1990s, they began to include very realistic graphics, so that pilots could, for example, do a test run flying low, through mountainous terrain (to hide from enemy radar). There are many versions, including some that can be run on a laptop. In the works is a version that is built into the aircraft. With this, the pilot can quickly revise mission plans while in the air, using the computer displays that are now standard in cockpits.
One of the more popular features are the realistic 3-D graphics. Computer game technology played a role in this. Meanwhile, through the 1990s, the U.S. developed 3-D computer modeling capability for terrain the world over. Using satellite photos and powerful computers, these systems could produce pictures (still and video) of what any terrain in the world looked like from the air or from the ground, or from an aircraft flying on the deck. The computers needed to make this work were large and expensive.
So popular were these 3-D capabilities that, by 1992 the Navy had two aircraft carriers equipped with a program called "Topscene" that allowed pilots to fly dangerous missions in a 3-D computer program. Britain is buying the latest version of Topscene. This product has come a long way since the 1990s. Back then, the computers needed to produce this degree of 3-D realism were the size of a small car and more expensive. But as computer games drove software and hardware developers to create more powerful and cheaper video capabilities for PC games, the capabilities needed for something like Topscene got cheaper and cheaper. By the end of the 1990s, you could run the photorealistic mission planning software on a desktop computer.
Since then, the mission planning software like Topscene has been enhanced to include better visuals and more data (like the latest intel on enemy anti-aircraft capabilities). The software designers borrowed more idea from video game developers, and tweaked the mission planning software to present lots of data clearly. Unfortunately, there has been little opportunity to use these new capabilities, except in training. Most of the combat missions have been pretty simple (just fly out with some smart bombs, and hang around until asked to drop one of them). These missions are generally flown at high altitude, out of ground fire range. Helicopter missions are a different story, with all of them close to the ground and often flying over territory full of hostile gunmen. When your life is at stake, too much planning ain't enough. So many NATO air forces operating in Afghanistan are going to the top shelf stuff like Topscene. Still, most of the 3,500 Topscene systems in operation are used by American pilots.