Warplanes pushed to new limits thanks to communications technology

Warplanes
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CBS NEWS - KERN COUNTY, Calif. Warplanes that cost billions to develop aren't worth a dime if they can't communicate with each other. That's why the military just wrapped up one of it's largest exercise in California, involving dozens of aircraft -- old and new.

The newest generation of warplanes and decades-old fighters from three branches of the armed forces took to the skies over the Mojave Desert for one of the largest testing exercises of its kind.

CBS News climbed into the tail of a KC-135 tanker for an exclusive look at "Orange Flag," a mock battle in the sky designed to push more than two dozen fighter jets to their technical limits.

Modern planes, like the F-35 and F-22 are essentially flying computers, but they have to share data, like battle plans and enemy coordinates, seamlessly with older jets, like the F-16. We watched from the air as pilots simulated a combat environment to see how the different aircraft can work together.

At the halfway point, the jets approached the tanker for mid-air refueling, with CBS News just a few feet away.

Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Perry maneuvered the tanker's nozzle into a space the size of a baseball on a F-35 -- at 350 miles per hour, 25-thousand feet above ground.

"That's the fun part of the job," Perry said. "I don't come up here and do this because it's safe."

Everything from how accurately an enemy is detected to how effectively the planes communicate with each other is tracked. It's an enormous amount of data -- 100 times more than the pilot can even see in the cockpit. It's all sent to a command center at Edwards Air Force Base in real time for analysis.

"We're trying to work all the bugs out," said Brig. Gen. Carl Schaefer. "So by the time it gets to the war fighter, there are no bugs. They can go right into whatever situation they need and operate seamlessly and share the information."

Commanders at Edwards Air Force Base say it's a lot less risky and a lot less costly to find and fix these problems on the airfield, than it is on the battlefield. Flight testers are now holding one of these events every three months.