DARPA Tests New Close Air Support Technology

A-10 WarthogThe Pentagon's top research arm and Raytheon will test a new system designed to massively speed up air-ground coordination and reduce targeting time for close air support from as long as an hour  ---  down to as little as six minutes.

A program called Persistent Close Air Support, or PCAS, connects pilots in real time with the ground-based Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACS, there to help establish and confirm target information.

“The way we are able to decrease the timeline from 30 to 60 minutes to six minutes or less is by having digital communications tablet-to-tablet between the pilot and the JTAC, having autonomous decision aides and sharing situational awareness,” said Dave Bossert, senior engineering fellow, Raytheon.

The PCAS program, which began four years ago and is now involved in what’s called phase three, plans a close air support weapons drop demonstration next February from an A-10 Warthog at the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, Ariz. Phase three of PCAS involves a $25.5 million DARPA deal with Raytheon.

The DARPA effort, which in total includes a roughly $45 million developmental deal with Raytheon, is moving forward under the watchful eye of interested Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps observers, Bossert said. The system could be ready for operational use by May of next year.

The first flight test of the PCAS system took place on an A-10 in October of this year and a test-flight to verify the on-board sensors is slated for December, Bossert explained.

Right now, most close-air-support is done using only voice radio to identify and confirm target information or coordinates, a process which can at times be lengthy in order to ensure the pilot and JTAC have correctly confirmed a given target location.

With PCAS, pilots and JTACs have digital messaging capability and are essentially networked through software programmable radio, technology which can wirelessly transmit IP packets of voice, video and data in real-time. Through the use of android-based digital tablets on the ground and in the cockpit of the aircraft, pilots and JTACs can view and exchange relevant targeting information using icons, digital maps and display screens.

Using what’s called smart launcher electronics, the PCAS system integrates software programmable radio with a processor and a digital tablet in the cockpit of the aircraft. The smart launcher electronics includes a computer to host the PCAS software, radios, an ethernet switch and a GPS/inertial navigation systems unit, Bossert explained.

The digital tablet, used by both the pilots and the JTACs, leverages digital navigation technology and mapping information gleaned from a Navy and Air Force program called Electronic Fight Bag. Electronic Flight Bag is an effort to replace paper maps in the cockpit with a tablet-based digital map database, Bossert said.

With PCAS, the standard so-called “nine-line” targeting information form no longer needs to be relayed only by voice but can be viewed simultaneously in real time by pilots and JTACs using a digital tablet, Bossert explained.

“The nine-line is a standardized methodology to pass target information. It is a format and a form that has nine pieces of information on it used to describe the target and its location. Right now they read it off. We’ve implemented the form digitally. Through this IP-based network, we want it to be like the pilot and the JTAC are sitting side by side,” Bossert said.

As a result of being networked through IP-based radio, PCAS allows a JTAC to view a pilot’s airborne targeting pod control picture and, similarly, permits a pilot to view target-grid coordinates and other displays from a JTAC’s tablet on the ground.

In addition, the PCAS technology uses what’s called autonomous decision aides, allowing things like weapons employment planning on the JTAC tablet.  While a ground commander and pilot will be the humans in the loop finalizing targets, the PCAS system will use algorithms to recommend which weapons might be best-suited to attack a given target.

“Not only do we have digital representation of the target but digital representation of the surrounding friendlies so you will be able to cycle through the different weapons effects and say ‘that is the weapon that I want.’ Then, the system will make a recommendation. The pilot and the JTAC can choose whatever weapon they want,” Bossert added. “We aren’t changing anything in terms of how the weapon is initialized and how the weapon is passed to the target.”

The targeting information can be networked to other air and ground platforms in the vicinity as well, he said.

“Anybody that is on the network that has an IP-based radio can get this information as well,” he said.

The A-10 is merely a demonstration platform for the technology, meaning the PCAS apparatus could easily migrate to other fixed-wing platforms able to provide close air support.

“You have increased situational awareness, so this has the potential to reduce collateral damage, decrease the likelihood of friendly fire incidents and save lives on the battlefield,” Bossert added.

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