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.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Big-Dean

    sounds promising but without the A-10 in the inventory “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

    the Air force has punted on the CAS mission completely (because they don’t give a shit about anybody on the ground), so perhaps the Navy/Marines could use this tech.

    • William_C1

      Not this tired old nonsense about “the USAF has abandoned CAS” etc. Where is this A-10 equivalent you think the USN has?

      In case you’ve forgotten a lot of CAS is done with JDAMs, SDBs, Hellfires, and other precision guided weapons these days. That means that this sort of technology is extremely useful to getting those weapons on target faster. Not everything has to be done with guns and unguided rockets.

      • Christopher

        The Hornet and Super Hornet are what the Navy uses for CAS.
        They used to have a proper CAS fighter before the A-7 was retired.
        If the Fighter Jock brass really cared to do more then drop bombs and missiles they would have made a proper requirement for an A-10 replacement instead of whining about having to keep it.

    • tiger

      Enough crying from the A-10 groupies. You act like it is the only thing flying that can drop a bomb.

      • crackedlenses

        It is insanely popular with the ground-pounders for a reason, tiger….

        • tiger

          The Jet Stuka has its place. Far from the magic wand the groupies harp over. Many others do most of the work.

  • rtsy

    Sounds like it’s turning the battlefield into a hackers paradise.

    • NathanS

      If our military encryption is broken, then CAS is the least of our worries.

      • Taylor

        The system wouldn’t have to be hacked. The enemy just would have to get a hold of one of the ground tablets and plug in the coordinates of our troops as targets. Without voice confirmation, it could be anyone. Presumably, there is some security procedure to eliminate that possibility.

        • blight_weroasdfl

          I’m curious how often this has happened, versus the possibility that troops will call strikes on themselves by accident (which happened in 2001 when protecting Karzai, and 2003 in Kurdistan).

        • Concerned Observer

          I’ve wondered about this with existing networked vehicles. If a vehicle (or a tablet) is captured intact and logged on, what’s to prevent an enemy from snapping a few digital photos of where the blue forces are? Enemy targeted airstrikes would be stopped by voice talk relatively quickly, but the knowledge of blue force positions and strengths would clearly be very useful to an enemy.

          As well, if the device isn’t logged in, there would seem to be a strong incentive to quickly force its operator to log it in before the device is flagged as lost. There’s also the incentive to quickly overrun the position to capture the equipment.

          • John Deere

            You think the system designers haven’t thought about this? I can guarantee such a consideration is at the top of the first page, highlighted in bold, with a number one and several stars prefixing it’s a comic-sans headline position…

      • x_txswo

        If (likely when) our military encryption is either broken or jammed, effective and long on-station time CAS is going to be the very first thing our troops on the ground will be praying for.

        • tiger

          They still have panels & smoke grenades if the tech fails. Worry more about batteries than jamming.

          • JohnnyRanger

            Wait a minute, dude. First, you defend retiring the A-10 by saying (and I quote), “Enough crying from the A-10 groupies. You act like it is the only thing flying that can drop a bomb.” Then, you suggest that our troops in need of CAS can fall back on smoke and VS-17s if their datalink fails. Smoke and panels? How the F**K is anyone in anyone in anything other than an A-10 going to be flying low and slow enough to guide off of smoke and panels? Don’t tell me Sniper pods. They’re not THAT friggin’ good. Don’t tell me Falcons or Strike Eagles or Hornets or Harriers. While I have no doubt that our pilots would go in as low and slow as they could to help out their buddies, their planes fly too fast to effectively guide off of smoke and panels, and besides, they’re UNARMORED (and yes, I know all of the above made gun runs at one point or another in Afghanistan – because it was necessary, not because it was the best alternative and not because it was as safe as doing so in a Warthog). And don’t tell me helos. We’re talking about fixed-wing.

          • Excellent points JR.

  • Doc

    They will want to use drones for this. That will increase the hack risk. The self destruct keys better work. At least we expect good maps, hopefully Google.
    If your own Droid takes out your command center, but it was hacked, then it doesn’t count as friendly fire?
    “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  • Christopher

    As if the fly boy brass would allow it. They’ll retire or pawn off any PCAS installed plane to the other branches is installed on except for their White Elephant. Like their doing with the C-27J.

  • Tony

    The boots on the ground with an armed drone controller would be the next step, provided the links can’t be hacked? The A-10 is low and slow, what is needed for CAS. The US Navy uses F-18’s for combat air patrols and bombing runs. The US marines uses the AV-8B and AH-1W Cobra helicopters for close air support, both can get low and slow.

  • Dan

    Why does everyone think “low and slow” is needed for CAS? Maybe twenty years ago when your only targeting sensor was the old Mk-1 eyeball, but today we can be ten plus miles from the target and make visual ID. I prefer we procure platforms that can fight the current battles as well as survive the future ones where Low and Slow gets you killed.

    • Curt

      If you look at the A-10 in the first Gulf War, they went low and slow and got shot up and didn’t accomplish a lot. When they went in at medium altitude and used the seekers on the Mavericks for targeting, they were much more successful. With targeting pods and APKS, Hellfire/JAGM, Maverick and SDBIi available, low and slow is asking to get killed, regardless of how much armor you have.

    • nrk

      And this has worked against ISIS. Think not.

  • Dan

    Why does everyone insist on “low and slow” for CAS? We don’t need to make the ID with our eyeballs anymore. Low and slow gets you killed fast in all except the most permissive environments.

    • x_txswo

      Seems to me I read insistence for “low and slow” CAS from troops who have been in heavy contact with the enemy.

      I’d pay attention to them.

      • Chuck

        Yeah, heavy contact with an enemy whose most effective anti-aircraft weaponry are machine guns, unguided RPGs, and the occasional Stinger. Stop getting stuck in the current conflict for when it comes to planning for the next one. There’s no guarantee the U.S. won’t go up against a real military again. If the next war were to be with China, the A-10s would get absolutely shredded.

        • blight_weroasdfl

          We lost six A-10’s in GW1. Those losses aren’t usually brought up by A-10 fans, who prefer to use Kim Campbell as their case study. In OIF, one A-10 was brought down by a SAM. Things were much easier in 2003 than they were in 1991…

  • Dan

    This has been around for quite some time, at least in Navy Marine Corps. Always been predicated on have the radio or D/L, but same exact tech.

    • MONTItheRed

      Been operational in the AF drones for at least 4 years. Able to transmit audio, video, digital, telemetry, and text to JTACs; makes target ID and 9-line generation a cinch.

  • elcidbob

    Of course this assumes air superiority and an environment where all the ground-based air defense has been neutralized, right? Since the pilot is going to be so heads-down in the cockpit reading his “digital” tablet, I did not know they made analog ones, he is never going to see that ZSU or SAM that smokes him.

    Since when did it start taking 30-60 min to get CAS in place? What happened to support on station that can be called when “Troops In Contact”, and directed on target within 5-15 min depending on where the airborne assets are stacked?

    • Bernard

      CAS only responds quickly if they are already on station. That’s why low and slow works, it uses less fuel and makes spotting new targets easy.

      • BajaWarrior

        Going low burns more fuel. Try again

    • Lurker

      I think that’s rather insulting to our Air Force pilots to suggest that they are so inept that they wouldn’t be able to handle looking at a tablet without getting shot down by some junky ZSU. Besides, how would it be any different than a Radar or FLIR screen? Or looking at the GPS map screen? Or any cockpit controls and displays?

  • blight_weroasdfl

    If they allow troops on the ground to direct the launch and targeting of weapon systems mounted on an aircraft that would be cool. Need a GPS-guided bomb on target? Connect to the aircraft, upload coordinates, instruct bomb to drop on target. This might free up the pilot to focus on situational awareness, which becomes rather important considering the JSF is a one-person aircraft. Or it may allow an A-10 acting as a FAC to offload Maverick targeting to troops on the ground while loitering as a FAC.

  • Dave

    With laser guided 2.75in rockets, that’s a lot of killing per aircraft.

  • Lurker

    The armchair generals are out in force today. “Hackers” are not even a remote concern for this sort of thing. End of story.

    • Christopher

      They seem to think that you can hack a drone with a laptop because Alex Jones/Rush Limbah/insert overpaid wack job says they can.

      • blight_weroasdfl

        They’re probably the people who thought loading a ship with 20mm Oerlikons is better air defense than a surface to air missile: since missiles are electronics and electronics “can be hacked”.

        • Lurker

          I wonder if they’re aware that networked/computerized comms and sensors are already in common use. Link-16, FBCB2, WIN-T, pretty much any UAV, AEGIS, Sniper ATP, Blue Force Tracking, etc.

          I think it’s a little odd that people go to a website called Defense *Tech* and seem to have a problem with the military using something as basic as a JTAC using a tablet to call in airstrikes.

  • gunnygil

    If you think hackers are a remote possibility with all that has happened on the net today you are the fool and end of your story. Abuse and misuse or over use of popular Technology is going to kill us all. For every straight security writer there are a few hundred thousand out there trying to hack it as soon a new program goes online. CAS is for the boots on the ground not the medals and awards for those supplying it. Nam our favorite and most effective CAS was the heavily armed but subsonic A-4 Skyhawk, The AD which could come in low, sight the target and dispense ordinance 50 yards ahead of friendlies, and the old and slow 1930’s C-47 with an AF Staff NCO’s idea to use the mini-guns out the port side in a wide circular pattern. Of course these A/C had to have air cover themselves but the difference was the air cover they used could not be as exact with dispersal of needed ordinance. O-1 bird-dogs and OV-10’s gave closer air cover but did not have the ordinance capability needed in the more remote areas. And to those who don’t know, there is a big difference between Air Cover and CAS and their missions.

    • Covey 583 (FAC)

      In Vietnam I would add that another favorite was the A1E for CAS and TIC. Longer Time on Target and lots of armament. They were one of my favorite flights to control. Let us not forget that the O-2 did a lot of the hard work on the Trail for years. We should not forget those guys.

  • The one hour down to six minutes is a bogus advertising stunt by the developer. Someone has played with the mission profile. And as someone pointed out, much of this gee-whiz technology is already available on the battlefield. And btw: if we don’t stop spending big bucks on marginal improvements, we won’t be able to employ the combat troops who need the support.

  • Medevac 19

    So they plan to use the A-10 as a test bed. But wait, it’s being taken out of the inventory, so why not use the F-15/F-16/F-? that will be the next CAS airframe? But wait, Sen. John McCain wants to keep the A-10 and the testing is supposed to happen in Arizona. Something is starting to smell a little fishy here.

  • Mick

    I think this would be a slam-dunk, no brainer for installing in an apache. Give the tablet to the weapons guy… pilot gets in position, weapons guy talks to the infantry, confirms targets, and launches missiles.

    I love the A-10, but it seems like the Apache is well situated to take over that role…

    • Christopher

      Except an Apache doesn’t have half the speed or sortie rate of an A-10. Since the USAF won’t make a proper replacement it’s gong to be drones for the PCAS.

      • blight_weroasdfl

        Range is killer. Unless the Army makes it a common practice to stage Apaches in austere conditions close to the fight, or finds a way to make a mobile helipad for the AH-64 it’ll always be something far from the action that needs a long lead time to get into position.

  • wtpworrier

    Turn the A-10 back over to the Army, they know more about ground support than the Air Force could ever learn.

  • Fly Boy

    Really…how much are they paying for this?? Shoot, I could do this with a couple cameras, Skye and Skype messenger!

    • blight_weroasdfl

      The tablet itself will have to be custom. It must be tough enough to survive the rigors of military use, have battery life to run for days, power a antenna with enough range and bandwidth to talk to an aircraft at high altitude and do so at high ground, in a ravine, in a city with tall buildings, under interference (from Trophy ADS radars or counter-IED jamming), work in the deserts, work in the Arctic, be waterproof…

      Yep, cameras and Skype.

  • Jim

    Bull Shit, as long as we have these stupid ROE some poor kid will die because of delays. There will always be some officer without the balls to make the call because of possible collateral damage.
    Time to use the same ROE as our enemies. Let win wars instead of hearts and minds!