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A UK defence initiative hopes to link up military flight simulators in the US and UK , allowing British pilots to train for complex multi-aircraft missions together with their American counterparts across the pond.

Front line aircrew are now involved in the experimental phase of the £7.8m Mission Training through Distributed Simulation (MTDS) demonstrator programme at RAF Waddington. MTDS is being delivered by Qinetiq, the sold-off MoD defence operation, in partnership with Boeing.

"Initial trials with front line RAF and US aircrew have gone extremely well," according to MDTS chief Kevin Williams in a Qinetiq release last week.

The RAF agrees, sort of. "We are still working within the realms of what we consider acceptable," Wing Commander Mike Dobson, synthetic training staff officer* at RAF Strike Command, told New Scientist yesterday.

The MTDS facility includes eight Tornado and Typhoon fighter-bomber cockpits and a seven-seat AWACS radar-plane mockup. The system has been integrated with the UK's Apache attack-helicopter simulators, famous for taking so long to arrive that the British Apache fleet had to be mothballed for two years after being delivered.

The British virtual-battlespace facilities can be connected to similar sites in the USA where American F-16, Apache, and AWACS jockeys train. Additional synthetic aircraft and ground vehicles can be injected into the simulations, though there was no suggestion of any Warcraft style virtual marketplaces or taverns.

The networked UK battle sims are relatively cheap because they don't tilt and swivel like normal flight simulators. Nonetheless, they allow military air crews to practice team operations in much the same way as gamers at a LAN party or using an internet hookup. Transatlantic latency was only 0.2sec in the recent trials, apparently.

Of course, the ability to give a pilot all the information he needs to carry out his mission almost instantly across thousands of miles can have other implications. It's already quite normal for pilots handling remote Predator drones over Iraq or Afghanistan to be sitting in a comfortable base near Las Vegas.

It's also perfectly possible to modify helicopters or even combat jets for remote control - as of last month no less than 217 mothballed 15-tonne F-4 Phantoms had been converted to remote control for use as targets or decoys.

The latest generation of drones are actually true flying robots which can land and take off autonomously - such as the US Warrior auto-plane and Fire Scout droid gunship. They don't even need a trained pilot on the remote control.

The very technology which Qinetiq and the RAF are using to train pilots may soon make flight personnel largely obsolete. ®

*The training is synthetic, not Wg Cdr Dobson. We assume.

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