Scene 1: Late 1944, Eighth Air Force bomber and fighter
bases in England, shortly before a mission to Germany.
Action: Aircrew members plan the mission. Their tools:
fragmentary operations orders, target data, and intelligence on the enemy from
higher headquarters; aeronautical charts for the route to Germany and back;
aircraft performance charts and tables with weapons load factors; pencils,
lined tablets, E-6B circular slide rules; and lots of hot coffee.
Scene 2: Early 1953, Far East Air Forces bases in South
Korea, before a strike against Chinese forces and installations in North Korea.
Action: Aircrews plan the mission. Tools: same as 1944.
Scene 3: Mid-1960s through 1972, Seventh Air Force bases in
Thailand, before strikes against enemy targets in North Vietnam.
Action: Aircrews plan the missions. Tools: same as 1944 and
Even for the USAF air strike against Libyan targets in April
1986, aircrews' planning tools were about the same as in 1944.
Between 1944 and the mid-1980s, the technology of airpower
cascaded through several generations. Military aircraft advanced from pistons
to jets, and the speed of air warfare leaped from 150 knots to Mach 2. Man
leaped from the earth to the moon. Sensors of many kinds vastly expanded the
volume of information on friend and foe. High-speed computers transformed
information processing, navigation, and communications.
Yet through all these advances, the tools for mission
planning didn't keep pace. Aircrews of the Air Force and sister services were
able to fly faster and farther and to fight better. The tools for mission
execution advanced with technology. But the tools given the crews to plan
missions for the 1980s were those used in the 1930s and 1940s.
Visits to reconnaissance and fighter wings in the early
1980s verified that reality. In the squadron ready rooms before a mission,
aircrew members cut aeronautical charts into strips and pasted them together
with rubber cement. They calculated their headings and times for waypoints
along the flight route by using slide rules and handheld calculators. They
transferred route information to charts by hand with colored pens. They filled
out mission cards with vital information and then were ready to go.
Using such methods, mission planning took a long time. It could
range from an hour or so for a simple mission up to ninety-six hours to prepare
a single Strategic Air Command mission folder. Planning for El Dorado Canyon,
the 1986 strike on Libya, took many days.
Given its multiple missions, scarce resources, and
requirements for fast action worldwide, the Air Force of the late 1980s and
early 1990s finds that it can no longer tolerate use of such antiquated mission
planning systems, if pencils and pasted charts can be dignified with the title
Making Up for Lost
Well before El Dorado Canyon, aircrews and commanders
throughout the Air Force knew that something better was needed for mission
planning. They knew, for example, that personal computers could do the job at
the crew level and that they were available. Thanks to technology, the Defense
Mapping Agency was able to convert maps of most of the world's topography to a
digital format and maintain databases in that form. Plenty of information about
the locations and characteristics of enemy weapons was available. But the Air
Force as an institution had done very little to pull together the technologies
and operational aircrew requirements into affordable systems capable of
automated mission planning.
Within the tactical air forces, Hq. TAC/DRI was tasked to be
the single focal point for mission planning. One of the many stimuli to improve
automated mission planning came chiefly from US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE),
then commanded by Gen. Charles L. Donnelly, Jr. In 1984 and 1985, General
Donnelly and his Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Maj. Gen. William L.
Kirk (later CINCUSAFE), heeded calls from aircrews for something better and
began pushing the system to respond.
The awesome and onerous task of planning El Dorado Canyon
early in 1986 brought matters to a head. General Donnelly, now retired,
remembers shuttling C-12 courier aircraft from USAFE and other locations in
Germany to bases in the UK in the weeks before the mission. They ferried load
after load of aeronautical charts, intelligence estimates, aerial photos, and
other types of imagery to flying units for use in their mission planning.
After the Libya strike, it became obvious at all levels of
the tactical, strategic, and airlift forces that improvement was needed fast.
To begin the process, a review group of USAF leaders convened at headquarters
in Washington, D. C., to focus automation at the unit level with emphasis on
automated mission planning. Its title: Squadron Operations Automation Review
This special group worked from June 1986 to February 1987.
It found that USAF squadrons had plenty of computers; indeed, it concluded that
they probably had too many. Each of the major commands had recognized the need
and had begun its own fix, as had USAFE. Commands were acquiring computers for
everything, mission planning included. The SOARG review found that a single
squadron might be fitted with up to forty-four separate computer systems, each
for a different purpose, and that virtually all of the systems ran on different
operating systems that couldn't talk to one another.
This was chaos with a capital C.
The central SOARG recommendation was intended to bring some
order. It was simple: The Air Force should address computer-assisted mission
planning with a single voice. It should and could do this even while
recognizing that different commands might have vastly different requirements or
find different applications in executing their particular missions.
Maj. Jim "Snake" Clark was involved in SOARG work
and continues to serve as the chief of USAF mission planning systems on the Air
Staff (USAF/XOOOE). He told a mid-1989 conference on automated mission
planning, sponsored by the Aerospace Education Foundation New Jersey (see box),
what happened next. The Air Force initiated a survey of USAF systems and found
a number of prototypes, such as one the wizards at the Electronic Warfare
Center had developed—an "improved many on many" model using
off-the-shelf computers, software, and interconnections. Meanwhile, a rational
strategy was developed.
What emerged was a three-track approach to the challenge.
First came immediate action to get a system out to the field as soon as
possible, though of limited capabilities and in minimal numbers. The second
track was use of that limited system to provide hands-on experience for
aircrews and thus promote feedback to permit quick reprogramming and
identification of operational and support problems. This led to the third
track: long-term acquisition. Experience on the first two tracks permitted the
Air Staff, working with users, to define long-term requirements and work out an
acquisition strategy to integrate automated mission planning into USAF force
The three-track approach worked and began to produce
practical results. A program element manager (at first, Lt. Col. Rich LeClaire
and now Lt. Col. Jim Wisneski) was established in USAF's acquisition
secretariat in the Pentagon. That step ensured that mission planning
requirements could be validated and compete for funds within the acquisition
Air Force Systems Command established a systems program
office (SPO) for automated mission planning, independent of any particular
aircraft and dedicated to meeting the users' needs quickly and at a reasonable
cost. The SPO for Automated Mission Planning (AMP), established within
Aeronautical Systems Division in March 1988, relocated to Electronic Systems
Division six months later to incorporate mission planning into the Air Force
battle management program. It is now the focus of USAF developments in
automated mission planning and the point of contact for industry.
While organizational changes were under way, USAF also
importuned operational commands to make their true needs known. They fell into
four major areas: tactical, strategic, airlift, and special operations. When
those commands compiled and forwarded their requirements, the senior USAF
structure had the raw materials it needed to orchestrate a cohesive effort.
There was much to orchestrate.
The tactical air forces alone, for example, identified and
justified approximately sixty requirements.
Meanwhile, the first mission planning systems began moving
into the field for the required hands-on experience and feedback. The first
sixty-five units of the system, called Mission Support System I (MSS I), were
delivered in late 1987 and early 1988.
Even as these first-generation systems were being delivered,
early lessons from their development were incorporated into Mission Support
System II (MSS 11). A contract for MSS II systems went to Fairchild Industries.
Between October 1988 and December 1989, Fairchild is to produce 138 of the
systems and also provide maintenance and support during their service lives.
Field users of MSS I and MSS II have been quick to respond
with recommendations drawn from operational use. At the same time,
developmental work by USAF laboratories and contractors has produced additional
progress. Promising applications are available for the next generation of
mission support systems, known as MSS III.
The request for proposals (RFP) for MSS III will call for
560 systems. ESD is expected to issue the RFP this fall. MSS III will be the
baseline system for the future, a logical upgrade of earlier systems that will
incorporate new technologies. Intense competition is sought and expected. At
present, the acquisition strategy is on schedule and within budget.
The goals for automated mission planning systems are simple,
yet can yield significant beneficial results in utility, cost, and in the
application of new technologies. One key goal is to fashion a system that can
meet the needs of the several different types of potential users, all the while
using databases that are both common and interoperable. Other goals are
simplicity, sensible conception and execution, upward compatibility, an
open-form system architecture, and redundancy in combat use.
Using the Systems
Even now, the difference between old ways of mission
planning and the methods made possible by the development of MSS II is nothing
short of startling. Planning for a complicated F-16 strike mission, for
instance, can be completed in minutes rather than the full day that it
traditionally has taken. SAC mission folders can be updated in two hours
instead of the usual ninety-six.
Much like the first time one saw a television broadcast or
watched the operation of a Polaroid camera, witnessing the MSS II system in
action makes a deep and lasting impression. The interrelated workings of
numerous technologies create the illusion of sorcery.
First is computing power; taking advantage of existing
capabilities. Next is the capability for linking computers in networks and
transmitting data via paths such as satellites, wires, and fiber optic cables.
Also included is massive memory capacity, taking advantage of optical disk
storage media. Color graphics displays and color printers round out the
ensemble. The conductor of this multidisciplinary orchestra can be found in the
integrated software that has been made portable and interoperable with other
Contemplate, for a moment, all of the variables that must be
considered, processed, and displayed to be useful to a crew about to set out on
First and foremost are the aircraft characteristics and
weapons load for the mission. Then come parameters such as takeoff roll, fuel
consumption, and optimum airspeed. They now have been recorded on hard or
floppy disks at the squadron center.
Routes to and from the target must be considered. Data on
starting points, waypoints, navigational aids, target locations, and return
routes are essential. Once the crew would have been issued paper aeronautical
charts that would cover the route. Now the Defense Mapping Agency has converted
those charts and their data to digital form on high-capacity, portable memory
means, such as optical disks.
A massive amount of intelligence about the enemy must be
considered. Again, that is either on a storage medium (such as a disk) in the
squadron, or instantly available from a central data source. Information
includes target data, location of defenses along the route and in the target
area, and their lethality.
Because all of this information is available and can be
manipulated, crews can plan their missions faster and more prudently. They can
examine tradeoffs between fuel consumption and exposure to enemy radar or SAMs,
for example. It is the "what if?" of civilian financial planning
spreadsheets carried to life-and-death considerations. The aircrew can speculate,
"What if we dropped 200 feet lower at this point? What would be the added
safety from SAMs and increased hazards from terrain?"
Even better, thanks to the marriage of simulators and
digital images from the automated mission planning systems, aircrews can
"rehearse" missions before flying them. This procedure can be
especially useful for special operations crews.
Finally, the warriors can take the knowledge along for the
ride. Once ready to fly, the crew can enter essential information into a data
transfer module, take it to the aircraft, and plug into the aircraft's
computers and other systems. Information for navigation, communication, threat
avoidance, and other mission-essential functions is readily available for use
during the mission. Such information can be updated during the mission, as the
situation changes and as new information is communicated to the crew.
The upshot is that, however belatedly, high technology is
now being thrown against a problem that has bedeviled air-combat operations for
decades. Dollar amounts expended seem puny when compared to those spent on such
glamorous weapon systems as the B-1B and B-2 bombers. Those weapons of the
1990s cannot be employed effectively with the planning technology of the 1940s.
Money spent now on automated mission planning could well make the difference
between success and failure in the air combat of tomorrow.
F Clifton Berry, Jr.,
is a former Editor in Chief of AIR FORCE Magazine. He saw USAF service in the
Berlin Airlift, 1948-49. Later, he was a paratrooper and officer in the 82d
Airborne Division. He commanded airborne and infantry units in the US and Korea
and saw Vietnam combat as operations officer of a light infantry brigade. His
most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was "It's Time to Worry About
Technical Manpower" in the July '89 issue. The author extends special
thanks to Maj. Jim "Snake" Clark, USAF, who assisted in the
preparation of this article and who is a spark plug and catalyst in automated
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag