DARPA is working hard on making it easier for Forward Air Controllers to order fast precision air strikes under chaotic and stressful conditions. Under a new initiative, a revolutionary new way of calling in crucial air support includes migrating away from clumsy radios and hardbook laptops to Android tablets and data links.
This new initiative is called the Persistent Close Air Support program, or PCAS for short, and is described by DARPA as such:
PCAS focuses on technologies to enable sharing of real-time situational awareness and weapons systems data through approaches designed to work with almost any aircraft. PCAS envisions more precise, prompt and easy air-ground coordination for CAS and other missions under stressful operational conditions and seeks to minimize the risk of friendly fire and collateral damage by enabling the use of smaller munitions to hit smaller, multiple or moving targets. This capability is critically important in urban environments.
Just last month, PCAS was brought to fruition in the deserts near Yuma, Arizona, during an exercise called “Talon Reach.” Talon Reach was itself part of the larger Weapons Tactics Instructor course capstone exercise that happens a handful of times a year.
During Talon Reach, forward air controllers, also known as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), dispensed with the heavy computer gear and crackling radios, and replaced them with a tablet computer much like one you would buy for a few hundred dollars at Best Buy. This Android tablet was loaded with intuitive software that leverages satellite imagery, real time intelligence and surveillance data, and easy to fill in fields that represent all the information a JTAC would commonly communicate to an aerial CAS asset. This information is commonly known as a "Nine Line" brief.
The Android tablet itself was connected wirelessly to a data-link system that pushed its information directly to the aircraft overhead. The aircraft used in the exercise was also experimental in nature, as it was Bell’s V-22 Osprey testbed which has recently been equipped with rockets and guided missiles. You can read all about this up-armed Osprey here.
Once the JTAC enters their brief, the overhead aircraft, in this case a V-22 loaded with AGM-176 Griffin low-yield air-to-ground missiles, receives it and the software onboard their side of the PCAS system automatically provides the location of the target on a map and an attack solution for the pilots to execute based on the JTAC’s request, location of friendlies, local terrain and other factors. This drastically cuts down the time it traditionally takes for a JTAC to ‘talk on’ an aircrew to the target, it also should drastically reduces the possibility of fratricide.
In the past, the closest thing to anything like PCAS JTACs and aircraft had at their fingertips was ROVER, which allowed for the aircraft's targeting pod video to be transmitted to the JTAC on the ground so that they could look at and even manipulate it. It was better than just the radio, but a far cry from what PCAS offers.
DARPA describes the two main components of the PCAS system:
There is PCAS-Air and PCAS-Ground. PCAS-Air consists of weapons management, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and communications systems located on a modular Smart Launcher Electronics (SLE) device designed to enable plug-and-play hosting of tactical software and mounting of equipment on almost any aircraft. PCAS-Air communicates with ground forces through PCAS-Ground, a suite of situational awareness and mapping software on commercial Android tablet computers. Two interoperable PCAS-Ground software applications have been developed with government partners: the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division (NAWC-WD) and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Rome Labs.
The android tablet interface that is central to PCAS has its own very elaborate name, the Kinetic Integrated Low-cost SoftWare Integrated Tactical Combat Handheld, otherwise known as KILSWITCH.
KILSWTICH has been in use for a couple years in multiple evolutionary forms, but it has never been seamlessly integrated with the aircraft overhead. And this is precisely what Talon Reach succeeded in doing. During the exercise's mock engagement, the JTAC sent a precise location near an abandoned truck for the Osprey to engagement along with other key details associated with a Nine Line CAS brief. The Weapon System Officer onboard the Osprey also had a tablet that was receiving the JTAC’s orders in real time, allowing him to quickly confirm the request. Then, the Osprey followed the PCAS-Air’s engagement solution and lased the coordinates of the target with its onboard laser designator. It then fired off a Griffin Missile at over four miles from the target, with the missile impacting exactly where requested. According to DARPA, the success of the exercise was measured in accuracy and especially time, and by both counts it was a stunning success:
The length of time from initiation by the JTAC to missile impact on target was just over four minutes—even better than PCAS’ goal of six minutes, and more than seven times faster than the half hour or more it can take using current methods that rely on voice directions and paper maps.
Although shortening the kill chain and helping to eliminate fratricide on the modern battlefield is a fantastic thing, KILSWITCH/PCAS has the ability to expand into much more than just a close air support enabling tool. Other data from information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sources could be available via the system at a tap of the software’s menu, allowing for greatly enhanced situational awareness by anyone with access to a KILSWITCH tablet. Additionally, if KILSWITCH and an active network, like the one used for PCAS demonstration, were expanded to different levels and permissions across a service, it could provide everyone from the individual soldier all the way up to commanders in the field with a common shared ‘picture’ of the battlespace around them. This could include everything from the latest topographical maps, known locations of friendly and enemy forces and even the locations of emitting sources of radio energy.
An evolved and highly networked KILSWITCH could drastically improve communications around the battlefield via the introduction of common encrypted messaging services and even facetime like capabilities. Another area where this technology could really become a game changer is in the leveraging of real-time Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) imagery feeds. The WAAS concept is all about allowing a multitude of customers to use the system's imagery for a myriad of purposes at any given time, and KILSWITCH/PCAS could be a broad distribution architecture to make that happen.
During another phase of Talon Reach, the exciting situational awareness that KILSWITCH tablets provide when Marines are operating within a networked battlespace versus an unnetworked one was also proven with fantastic results:
Another part of the exercise showed the value of the PCAS-Ground system on its own. In a simulated night ground battle between Marines and adversaries, a group of Marines had KILSWITCH tablets but very limited situational awareness of the location of friendly forces and enemy locations. Another group of Marines, also equipped with KILSWITCH tablets, arrived simultaneously and launched a small unmanned air vehicle (UAV) into the air to provide ISR and network relay capabilities. Within seconds, all the KILSWITCH tablets synced up with the UAV through the Marines' tactical radios and automatically populated the location of all friendly forces, greatly improving both groups' ability to coordinate and accomplish their mission.
So have we reached a point where precision guided munitions will be dropped from the sky seemingly on demand and all a soldier has to do to stay connected and briefed on virtually anything they may need to accomplish their mission is to carry around an Android tablet?
Not quite, but we are getting there.
The weapons on demand model has always been the endgame vision of truly persistent close air support. Under such a concept, heavy bombers, 737 derivatives, or even unmanned aircraft, could be parked up at 35,000 feet, their bellies full of various weapons, some of which have a 50 mile glide range. Then, when the order comes in via data link, the weapons bay doors open and a munition perfectly tailored to the target assigned to it heads off to its destination down below. Think of it as the automatic vending machine of close air support.
There is no doubt that this form of close air support is attractive for its convenience, economy, and speed. One day it could even give a whole fleet of stealthy advanced unmanned combat air vehicles something to do after the enemy's metaphorical door has been kicked down and air dominance has been achieved. Still, its use in extreme danger and close proximity to friendly forces is measured by the weapon's unbending reliability statistics. In other words, unless we are going to drop dozens of very low-yield Griffin missiles in a long row along a treeline, each costing tens of thousands of dollars, nothing can replace a manned aircraft carrying a big gun down low.
That is not to say that for a large portion of CAS scenarios, CAS on demand via an Android tablet and a high-flying arsenal ship loaded with a cocktail of weaponry is not a very attractive solution. Yet such a concept relies heavily on a lot of technology always working perfectly, including data links and computer systems that could be jammed, infiltrated, hijacked or hacked by a capable foe. That is precisely why a low-down and fairly simple form of CAS have to remain in America's quiver.
In the end, highly networked concepts like PCAS are a fantastic layer of combat capability to have, but they are just that, another layer. As long as multiple capability layers of varying technological sophistication exist, each layer will be better for it. Conversely, if just one layer remains, and that layer is highly dependent on complex and disreputable technology, we are inviting disaster as we can't simply decide not to fight when our network isn't working perfectly. There has to be a plan B, and that plan B is a radio, a set of binoculars and the Buuuuurrrrrppppppp from an A-10's 30mm Avenger cannon.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com