One of the most 'popular' features on the controversial F-35 is the jet's Distributed Aperture System (DAS). DAS creates an all-seeing sphere and classifies and relays data and video to the pilot's helmet and to the jet's mission computers. This game-changing system has now been adapted for the high seas, and it won't stop there.
How It Works
DAS accomplishes its unique task via a constellation of electro-optical cameras installed around the F-35, each staring in a separate direction. Then, a powerful computer processor "stitches" these video images together to create a continuous viewable video "sphere." When the DAS imagery is paired with an advanced helmet mounted display that is slaved to a spatial tracking system, the person wearing that helmet can look around and virtually "see" the environment around them relayed from the camera network, even in total darkness and, in some cases in otherwise blinding environmental conditions.
Because the DAS cameras are mounted around the outside of the vehicle, and the user is seated inside the vehicle while wearing a helmet mounted display with DAS's imagery being projected inside of it, the user can virtually "see through" the vehicle's structure as if it were never there in the first place. So if a F-35 pilot was flying at night, and his wingman disappeared below him, he could look down and see his wingman right through the floor of his jet.
Distributed Aperture technology does not only provide synthetic vision. When paired with high-speed computers loaded with the latest in image recognition and object tracking software, the system can provide missile launch detection and tracking, ground target tracking and recognition, infra-red search and track functions, and even ballistic missile tracking capabilities. When tied to high-end software and advanced computing hardware, the DAS system is very smart and very sensitive, and will only become more so as time goes on.
In the realm of air combat, a pilot flying an aircraft with DAS installed should almost always know where the enemy and friendlies are during a dogfight. The system really works as a smart optical search and tracker at longer ranges, notifying the pilot of interesting things it sees, both in the air and on the ground, and as a virtual "back-seater" born with x-ray vision during close-range combat.
In an age where cockpit workload increases even as automation takes over more tasks, DAS provides more than an extra pair of eyes always looking outside the cockpit. With the help of on-board automation, DAS can perform key tasks for the pilot while greatly enhancing his or her overall situational awareness. A much more capable, but less affable, "Goose" if you will.
As a mature F-35 and an enemy fighter merge during a theoretical dogfight, DAS will keep that enemy aircraft locked up without pointing the nose of the aircraft anywhere near them, and the pilot can fire a network-enabled AIM-9X Block II advanced Sidewinder at it. DAS would transmit the enemy aircraft's telemetry to the highly maneuverable missile in-flight, which has a high probability of destroying the enemy aircraft as it bleeds energy in a hard turn. Meanwhile, the F-35 has accelerated out of the fight or pressed the fight further, taking advantage of the fact that the enemy aircraft is now on the defensive (if not destroyed), and at a low energy state.
DAS is also totally integrated into the F-35's overall sensor suite, so that if the jet's super-capable APG-81 AESA radar, or digital radar homing receiver or electronic surveillance suite detects something of interest, the F-35's software can cue the DAS to closely analyze that location visually. If it ends up detecting something in that spot, the pilot would be notified, thus DAS would add to the pilot's situational awareness and help in expediting their decision cycle, as well as potentially providing enhanced targeting data as a byproduct.
DAS and the F-35′s Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), basically an internal SNIPER XR targeting pod mounted under faceted windows below the F-35′s nose, also can work closely together. When it comes to long-range targets, the aircraft's radar may detect a possible contact, and the powerful telescopic vision of the EOTS will attempt lock onto it and relay its imagery to the pilot's displays. This will allow visual target identification from well beyond visual range.
As the target comes within the viewing range of DAS, the F-35's software should seamlessly "hand the contact off" if commanded to do so, thus freeing up the more powerful, but narrower field of view, EOTS for other tasks. In this manner, the system also offers some redundancy against electronic countermeasures and jamming, as optical systems are not susceptible to these types of tactics while tracking a potentially hostile aircraft.
The integrated nature of the F-35′s sensor suite, including its radar, EOTS, DAS, data-link, sensitive radar warning receiver and electronic surveillance measures, allows for the F-35 to go "electromagnetically silent" once a target is detected at long to medium ranges. It can then track that target using passive sensors (everything but radar). This allows for the F-35 to maneuver tactically without being detected by continuously "spiking" the enemy aircraft with its radar system. Even the F-35's missiles should be able to be guided using the aircraft's electo-optical systems alone, as well as from off-board sensors such as the data-link feed coming from an orbiting E-3 AWACS, other fighter aircraft such as F-15Cs operating well behind the F-35, ground radar stations and other sources.
How The Navy Is Going To Use It
DAS technology is pretty cool stuff that has massive implications not just for the future of air combat, but for the entire defense industry, and transportation as a whole. With all the incredible air combat capabilities DAS provides in mind, the creative folks over at Northrop Grumman have adapted the system for service at sea, and ominously named this new capability "Silent Watch."
Tactically, Silent Watch could break the narrow field of view limitations that currently exist on naval FLIR and other optical targeting systems, and provide a single-source, persistent, 360' electro-optical coverage. This could be used for situational awareness and surveillance or for targeting of the ships weapons systems.
Additionally, a single Silent Watch system, and its resulting video-data feed, could be used by different departments with different missions on a single vessel at a single time. For instance, a CIWS gunner could use Silent Watch for enhanced situatonal awareness and targeting, the combat information center on the ship could be using it to alert them of incoming missiles or fast boats, while another sailor uses the system to help direct air traffic coming and going from the ship's landing pad, while yet another sailor uses the system for navigating in a highly trafficked waterway.
Silent Watch makes a great deal of sense not just for US Navy destroyers, cruisers or Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) who live under the constant threat of everything from cruise missile attacks to swarms of high-speed enemy cigarette boats, but also for the commercial shipping market.
How Other Ships Could Use
Silent Watch, which has already been tested in a rudimentary form aboard Northrop Grumman's test yacht "Sperry Star III," is relevant for large commercial ships that have to sail into regions that have issues with piracy and terrorism. In fact, even for ships that do not sail into high-risk areas, the situational awareness gained by Silent Watch may be worth the investment for navigation purposes alone, especially considering that crew sizes continue to shrink on commercial ships.
Silent Watch may be even able to reliably detect, and immediately track, a man overboard, a capability that has never been effectively fielded to this very day. The ability to have a system that could do all these things and literally alert the crew when an object is on a collision course with, or in its vicinity of their ship, independent of radar, could be worth its cost in saved manpower and averted potential disasters alone. Even while docked in port, a time when a ship becomes a vulnerable fixed target and its manpower is at its lowest magnitude, Silent Watch could keep an eye on the ship's surroundings with minimal manpower requirements and near robot-like efficiency.
Also worth mentioning is the high-end private vessel marketplace and the potential Silent Watch has to proliferate within that marketplace. When a super wealthy individual blows $250M on a super yacht, hires a team of ex-special forces to guard their "steel island," and blows millions more on choppers, tenders, and mini-subs to play with, installing Silent Watch on their ship just makes sense and would seemingly be the very least of their budgetary concerns. This is especially true considering that many of the folks who own such large pleasure boats are usually security conscious and under some type of persistent security threat.
Oh, And It Could Work For Land Vehicles As Well
Silent Watch, or at least another, even simpler version of DAS, may find itself migrating to land vehicles in the not so distant future. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and other land combatants that traditionally offer less than stellar visibility could really benefit from such a system.
Currently, tank commanders must watch the outside world through their electro-optical imagers for situational awareness and target acquisition. These traditional FLIR systems have a field of view comparable to a soda straw. Tank drivers also usually have to rely on a panoramic pariscope, or similar device, to navigate during combat operations. By adapting DAS to a land vehicle platform, a tank commander and/or driver could literally see right through the skin of their tank while wearing a helmet mounted display, and could even access their traditional narrow field of view sight's video feed while wearing that same display. In other words, a tank commander could look virtually outside of their tank, and then just pull up the targeting FLIR's zoomed-in video feed on their helmet mounted display for target acquisition and engagement.
Eventually, armored vehicles may be able to cover their thick armored glass entirely with extra armor plates for added protection, with the vehicle being driven virtually through a 3D helmet mounted display system, that is fed with DAS-like imagery. This reality is even starting to come to pass in the commercial world, as the 3D Oculus Rift virtual reality motion tracking goggles continue to be developed and new avenues for its use are identified.
It is great to see new applications of DAS migrating their way out of the F-35 even before the aircraft is operational. This type of capability has the potential to literally change the way we interact and observe our environment. As bandwidth evolves, and more data can be piped quickly over long distances, "unmanned aircraft" may become "virtually manned" aircraft when the mission dictates it.
For instance, a stealthy autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) may hit fixed strategic targets and take down an enemy's air defense system on its own early on in campaign, but later, when close air support is needed, a pilot may be able to virtually 'fly' a DAS equipped UCAV from thousands of miles away.
This would not be the 'man in the loop flying' concept of operations like we have seen with the Predator or Reaper drones, where a pilot sits in front of a small flat screen. Instead it could be in a full-sized simulator like dome with an actual cockpit to interact with and the UCAV's DAS imagery projected for near-reality levels of situational awareness. This remote 'virtual' flying could even take place in a dark room with minimal infrastructure, with a pilot wearing 3D virtual reality goggles and sitting in a 'cockpit' that exists entirely within the virtual realm alone.
Such a capability would greatly enhance the value and adaptability of high-end UCAVs, allowing them to knock down the enemy's door during the opening stages of a campaign, and then provide a high-fidelity 'man in the loop' capability once combat troops are in harms way.
In the end, DAS is a game changing technology, and it will be just as at home at sea, and probably more plentiful there as well, as it is in the air. In time, don't be surprised to see the similar systems deployed on everything from US Navy AEGIS cruises to Carnival Cruise ships, and maybe even tanks and unmanned aircraft eventually as well.
Photos via Lockheed Martin, DoD, Northrop Grumman, public domain
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that 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