Operation Desert Storm is the first computer-driven war. It may be stretching it to say the early results made the whole thing seem like an arcade game, but personal computer programs that simulate U.S. military hardware have gotten some priceless, if indirect, exposure. The companies that make this software say their orders are rising sharply.
These software simulations fall somewhere between a game and a serious training exercise. Microsoft's original "Flight Simulator," the progenitor of all such programs, has been praised for giving a remarkable approximation of the task of flying a single-engine propeller plane. Computer junkies who have stayed up nights trying to make a smooth landing will tell you that real flying couldn't possibly be this hard.
"Flight Simulator" was followed by a host of combat aircraft simulations. One of the most popular -- and most likely to get a lift from the Persian Gulf War -- is Microprose's "F-15 Strike Eagle II" for the IBM-PC and compatibles ($54.95 list). The F-15 has done heavy duty in the gulf war and is considered the dogfight weapon of choice by many U.S. airmen.
Microprose is shipping the latest versions with both Persian Gulf and Middle East scenarios, though neither contemplates a U.S. air attack on Iraq. Iran and Libya are the more likely targets.
The designers have done their best to make this software easy to use and you can put it in either training or autopilot modes, or both, to help you get started. In autopilot, you don't have to worry about keeping the aircraft on course. In training mode, your mission starts with the plane airborne and enemy fire can't bring you down. You also can re-arm your plane without landing.
Even so, an uninitiated user will find this software sophisticated and difficult. You can either use the cursor keys or a joystick as the control.
To those intrigued by the performance of American "smart bombs" over Iraq and Kuwait, firing the weapons will be a major attraction. An F-15 carries a range of guided missiles.
There are Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and Maverick air-to-ground missiles. These weapons all have the ability to "lock onto" their targets and then home-in on them automatically. When you hit the "fire" button, the computer's sound chip emits a blast and you can see the missile race across the screen.
You are peering through what is intended to look like a cockpit window on which a see-through set of indicators (the "head-up display" or "HUD") is projected. This permits you to keep track of your speed, altitude and heading while still seeing the computer-generated scenery through your windshield.
These displays don't quite qualify as realistic, but computer pilots with EGA or VGA displays will find the graphics colorful, if a bit crude and geometric. They are at least as clear as those televised direct hits from the skies over Iraq.
When your radar or other warning equipment spots a target, a location or an incoming missile, the message is also projected on the head-up display. In addition, you can track your flight from several other views -- to the left, right and rear. You also can get external views of your plane in flight from the side and rear.
Below the HUD are three screens, one representing a satellite map of the area of your mission, one showing a radar map of your immediate location and the third showing a picture of the nearest target. If you choose an air-to-ground missile, your target screen shows only surface targets. The screen shows only other aircraft if you choose an air-to-air missile. As you approach a target, this screen lets you know when you have "radar lock" to fire. When you do, watch your target screen for an explosion. Your HUD will also flash you a message on the result.
Even in training mode with autopilot on, you have to watch constantly for enemy aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. Your instruments will warn you, but you'll need to be quick to respond with flares or chaffs to confuse incoming missiles.
You also need to keep the right weapon ready -- and watch for the precise moment to fire.You'll need to master a number of commands to avoid checking the manual when you should be watching your controls.
"F-15 Strike Eagle II" comes with a 90-page manual that is about half instruction book and half handbook on fighter planes. If you can master this simulation, you may be ready for the much more advanced and complex "F-19 Stealth Fighter" simulation. More about it after a thorough test flight.Brit Hume is a contributor to the Washington Post Writers Group. He is chief ABC News White House correspondent and the founding editor of a computer newsletter.