Raytheon has completed the flight-test phase of a U.S.-funded research program to improve the accuracy and timeliness of close air support. By digitally linking pilots and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs–also known as forward air controllers or FACs), the process of selecting and delivering weapons onto targets can be improved to provide a decisive tactical advantage, according to the program sponsors. It could also save lives by minimizing collateral damage and friendly fire, they say.
The Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program was a four-and-a-half-year, $85 million effort conceived by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Northrop Grumman and Raytheon worked on Phase 1, with the latter company selected for Phase 2. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC) also contributed.
According to DARPA’s marching orders for PCAS, air-ground coordination in close air support had “changed little since its emergence in World War I. Pilots and JTACs can focus on only one target at a time, and must ensure they hit it using just voice directions and, if they’re lucky, a common paper map.”
Dr. Dave Bossert, PCAS program manager at Raytheon, told AIN that some improved technology for JTACs had actually been fielded in recent years, “but the equipment was heavy and not intuitive.” At the Dubai Air Show eight years ago, AIN published a plea by a senior British airman serving in Afghanistan for lighter and more capable equipment for JTACs, including a common datalink algorithm. Bossert said that the PCAS program had done exactly that, after consulting with more than 50 pilots and JTACs on the system design.
The PCAS-Ground system for JTACs comprises a “smart” power hub, customized Android tablet computers and digital radio that altogether weigh only five pounds. Raytheon selected Rockwell Collins to provide this equipment, and BAE Systems also contributed with a laser-targeting device that also only weighs five pounds. The tablets are loaded with situational-awareness and mapping software. In a field trial in early 2013, 750 smart tablets were distributed to units in Afghanistan where they dramatically improved the coordination of air engagements, according to DARPA.
The PCAS-Air system was devised by Raytheon, and is comprised of smart electronics inside a weapons launcher or the aircraft cabin, and a tablet for the pilot(s). It combines navigation and weapons management data from the aircraft with a high-speed digital data transfer system to communicate with the JTAC. A communications translator enables the use of radios from Harris, L-3 or Rockwell Collins.
In fact, the whole PCAS system is platform-, radio-, sensor-, and weapons-agnostic, according to Bossert. The plug-and-play system is designed to adapt to nearly every aircraft–including UAVs. Flight trials this year have included a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 firing a laser-guided AGM-176 Griffin missile; and a U.S. Air Force A-10 launching the 2.75-inch APKWS laser-guided rocket and an Enhanced Paveway II bomb. The Marine Corps trial also included an AeroVironment Switchblade attack UAV.
Here’s how PCAS works. The JTAC creates the ‘nine-line’ engagement plan on the tablet, and transmits the plan to the aircraft. He can ‘stack’ multiple plans, if he has identified multiple targets. The aircraft software evaluates and auto-populates the plan with whatever sensor and weapons data is available and relevant. Aircrew and JTAC share the information to confirm the shot. The JTAC gets a countdown to weapons release, and can see an impact line. (Both aircrew and JTAC can see video of the target on their tablets–according to Bossert, PCAS eliminates the need for the larger, dedicated ROVER laptops that are currently used by JTACs to view airborne video).
According to DARPA, the trials proved that the PCAS system could speed up the whole process of calling in airstrikes from half an hour or more, to less than six minutes. They also point the way to the routine employment of weapons with smaller warheads, thus reducing the potential for collateral damage.
PCAS also heralds an enhanced role for JTACs. It enables them to help in the weapons selection process, because their tablets display information from the engagement management system on the aircraft, such as the radius of damage of the weapon, colloquially known as the ‘bug splat’. Raytheon has also included ‘Level 3’ control in PCAS, allowing the JTAC to remotely steer the airborne sensor.
Bossert told AIN that Raytheon was now working with the various U.S. services to fully transition PCAS into existing and future programs. Another demonstration took place last month, with a fourth to follow by year-end. Bossert was unwilling to disclose the platforms. The U.S. Marine Corps is keen to implement PCAS on all its platforms, whereas the U.S. Air Force and Navy may be more selective. The services must decide whether to implement the PCAS-Air system as a ‘bolt-on,’ as demonstrated so far, or whether to incorporate it into the platform’s operational flight program (OFP) as part of a planned block upgrade.
Of note to U.S. coalition allies, Bossert told AIN that Raytheon has an export strategy in place. o
Air Campaign Flaws
Despite the technical advances described here, the risk of collateral damage and innocent casualties from airstrikes will remain as long as targets are identified by faulty intelligence. That is the issue now under investigation by the Pentagon, following the tragic attack on a hospital run by Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3.
President Obama called the attack “a mistake,” and apologized to MSF and relatives of the 30 staff and patients who were killed. The hour-long attack was conducted by an AC-130 gunship belonging to U.S. Special Operations Command. Afghan commanders requested the attack, citing the Taleban’s presence inside the hospital compound, but it is not yet clear whether American military commanders verified the target.
Neither would the PCAS technology help the current U.S.-led air campaign over Iraq and Syria. Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) is being conducted without the aid of JTACs on the ground to identify and mark targets. Instead, commanders are relying on many hours of prior video surveillance, usually from MQ-1/9 Predator/Reaper UAVs, before endorsing targets for airstrikes. Even then, when reaching their targets, aircrew must observe rules of engagement that have been significantly tightened to compensate for the lack of friendly “eyes on the ground.”
The Pentagon claims that in the 15 months since the start of OIR, only a few civilians have been killed in two confirmed cases, although 15 others are under investigation. But conducting an air campaign in this way consumes an enormous amount of resources, with 75 percent of all combat missions launched returning to base without dropping a weapon. Up to 160 coalition aircraft fly every day on OIR, and the campaign is costing the U.S. alone some $10 million per day.