US Air Force could soon begin testing light attack aircraft to see if they’re a viable option for close-air support. The work is being led by Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office. The office will conduct experiments that include live exercises and simulation, and it will help senior Air Force leaders decide which technologies to fund.
“We’re bringing in vendors that have light attack airplanes and flying them against a series of test objectives,” said Jack Blackhurst, director of the office. The experiment is expected to run for about 135 days, and will help the service determine if light attack planes are a viable, low-cost option to supplement the A-10 Warthog. The Air Force has pushed back the retirement of the A-10s until at least 2022 following stiff opposition from Congress.
Lt. Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes, the service’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, has floated a number of close-air support options to Air Force leaders, including the flight demonstration of inexpensive, off-the-shelf tactical airplanes. Among the aircraft mentioned are turbo-propeller aircraft like Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano and the Beechcraft’s AT-6 Wolverine, Textron AirLand’s Scorpion jet or a variant of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346.
Holmes has stressed that a new light attack craft would supplement, not replace the A-10 Warthog fleet. But it would give combatant commanders a low-cost option for battling violent extremist groups in light of the high operations and maintenance costs associated with the A-10 and various fighter jets currently doing that job. The plane would not be meant for high-end combat, but a “low-to-medium-threat environment,” where it could fly low over the battlefield, bombing or strafing enemy forces without too much worry about advanced air defenses, said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff.
CAS is the direct support of troops on the ground by air assets. At present CAS missions are performed by A-10 aircrafts. However, any aircraft that can employ ordnance can do CAS. “Close air support (CAS) is air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces,” according to Department of Defense Joint Publication 3-09.3. CAS is difficult and dangerous operation because it requires intricate coordination between combat aircrews and ground forces.
USAF envisions Future Close Air Support
CAS under high-threat and contested environment posed by threat nations like North Korea, China and Russia is risky because of employment of sophisticated enemy air defenses by them. This requires a capable fighter like F-35 fighter that possess assets like suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) and change tactics to avoid getting shot down. However, Lockheed Martin F-35, is considered to be too expensive to operate in low threat CAS, as USAF deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements Lt Gen James Holmes told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee panel, “It would certainly be an expensive way to go after a permissive environment mission and we hope to not have to do that, so we will look at other options.”
Holmes told reporters after the hearing that the air force needs to figure out if it needs an entirely new attack platform or a more basic “off-the-shelf” option like the AT-6, A-29 or Scorpion before pushing forward with a new acquisition programme. “In the perfect world, that’s close air support of the future,” Welsh said. “But there needs to be the ability to mass firepower quickly, and that probably going to involve sending more close air support capability. We have that in lots of forms today.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of “Low-Threat” CAS. Air assets have been able to operate unimpeded by complex Surface to Air Missile systems, Anti-Aircraft Artillery, and the threat of opposing fighters. The biggest threat being that of small-arms and Man-Portable Surface to Air Missiles (MANPADS).
The Air Force believes that turboprop-driven light attack aircraft, combined with advanced unmanned aerial vehicles and the fleet of traditional fighters, would be more suitable for irregular conflicts of the future. The prospective aircraft, sometimes referred to as OA-X, would be loaded with Global Positioning System links, equipped with laser guided munitions, and rigged with advanced sensors capable of detailed scanning of terrain below. These smaller, slower planes can carry the same types of weapons as high-end fighters but linger far longer over a combat zone.
“The two-seat attack aircraft will provide commanders with greater situational awareness than currently provided by single-seat fighters, according to Air Combat Command’s “OA-X Enabling Concept.”
In a fighter, a pilot’s situational awareness is often reduced because one aircraft in a two-ship tasking is frequently getting gas from a tanker while the other performs the CAS mission. “In single-seat fighters, this creates an unacceptable burden of responsibility to low-time, inexperienced wingmen,” the ACC document states. In addition to close air support and armed reconnaissance, the OA-X aircraft could perform forward air control, strike coordination and reconnaissance, air interdiction, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, and joint terminal attack controller training if equipped with high-tech sensors. These capabilities could prove useful in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Compared to the A-10, Welsh envisions a new plane “that brings more firepower, that is more responsive” and is cheaper to fly. “We need something to keep doing, at much lower cost, the types of things we’re doing in the counterinsurgency fight today,” he said. “Eventually, I think the right close air support replacement is something that’s overhead the ground force all the time and is firepower on demand,” he said. “It’s flying artillery.”
Welsh mentioned the “flying Coke machine,” a concept championed by former Air Force Secretary James Roche. As described by a June 2005 Popular Science article, it would be a drone “that would orbit high above the battlefield with a variety of bombs and release them on command from ground observers.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter raised the idea of an arsenal plane earlier this year, but details of the project are classified
DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) enables soldiers to call for airstrikes within six minutes through tablets
To maintain a decisive tactical advantage in 21st-century combat, warfighters need the ability to safely, rapidly and collaboratively deploy ordnance against elusive mobile targets. However, currently under CAS, pilots and ground soldiers must focus on one target at a time and rely on voice directions and paper maps to call in air support. This can take up to one hour to be arranged and have an aircraft arrive on station, which allows a target to relocate or attack first.
DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program seeks to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness by enabling soldiers and combat aircrews to share real-time situational awareness, and weapons system data and reduce engagement time to as little as six minutes. The standard “nine-line” targeting information to describe the target and its location can be viewed simultaneously in real time using a digital tablet.
Both targets and surrounding friendlies are represented digitally, and the targeting information can be networked to other air and ground platforms in the vicinity as well. The system would enable ground agents to quickly and positively identify multiple targets simultaneously, would then jointly select precision-guided ordnance that best fits each target and minimizes collateral damage and friendly fire. Finally, both parties would authorize weapons deployment.
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.
Raytheon is System Integrator
Raytheon is the systems integrator for PCAS. The company leads an industry team comprised of Rockwell Collins, General Electric, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and 5-D Systems. Raytheon brings its expertise in overall systems integration, weapons, aircraft integration and unmanned aircraft system ground control stations to PCAS.
As a teammate to Raytheon for the design and development phase of the program, Rockwell Collins seeks to streamline CAS workflows and Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) human-machine interfaces, provide high bandwidth QNT radios, and integrate dismounted, next-generation head up displays, helmet mounted cueing systems, and advanced targeting and visualization tools.
PCAS is a package of technologies designed to speed close air support to soldiers on the battlefield, enabling ground troops, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) and combat aircrews to share real-time situational awareness and weapons systems data. Executed in three phases, the four-and-a-half year program included flight testing during the first six months of 2015.
“The PCAS program was able to reduce close air support response times from nearly one hour to less than six minutes,” said Tom Bussing, Raytheon vice president of Advanced Missile Systems. “By speeding critical information to decision makers, PCAS could save lives in the battlespace.”
CAS is one of the few missions that is common across all services, army, the Air Force and the Navy. During the U.S. Marine Corps’ Talon Reach V exercise in March, the program demonstrated end-to-end, fully digital weapons release of a Griffin missile from a modified MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. In May, an A-10C Thunderbolt II attack aircraft and a joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground, both using PCAS’ real-time digital communications and situational awareness capabilities, successfully employed 10 GPS- and laser-guided weapons in a second series of flight tests.
The PCAS system is designed to be platform-, digital radio-, sensor-, and weapons-class agnostic, and to be portable from platform to platform. The two main parts of the system are PCAS-Air, which consists of smart launcher electronics and a pilot tablet, and PCAS-Ground, which comprises the equipment used by the JTAC.
Successful Demonstrations of Persistent Close Air Support
DARPA demonstrated its Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) prototype system on an A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, marking the system’s debut on a U.S. Air Force platform. The tests, which involved 50 successful sorties near Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, showed that a warfighter on the ground could, in seamless coordination with a pilot, successfully command an airstrike with as few as three clicks on a tablet.
On March 27, DARPA successfully tested the full PCAS prototype system for the first time as part of TALON REACH, a U.S. Marine Corps infantry/aviation training exercise conducted in the southwest region of the United States.
The demonstration marked the first successful integration of automated, digital, real-time coordination capability into a military aircraft system, including rail-launched munitions, digital data links and advanced software in support of ground forces.
A person qualified to control air strikes from the ground is called a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) or Forward Air Controller (FAC). During the full-system demonstration, a JTAC used a PCAS-Ground tablet to identify a target position near an unmanned truck and communicate its position to the PCAS-Air module inside a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, via a digital link added to the MV-22 as part of the PCAS modifications. PCAS enabled both the JTAC and the aircraft’s weapon systems officer, who also had a PCAS-Ground tablet, to share real-time information, enabling them to quickly confirm the shot and execute the order.
The Osprey fired a non-explosive version of a specially mounted Griffin missile—a tube-launched precision-guided munition—from 4.5 miles (9 km) away to support a simulated downed friendly pilot in the Marine exercise. Guided by a targeting laser, the missile hit exactly where directed and, had it been explosive, would have destroyed the target. 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.
“On its first try, the full PCAS prototype system showed we could use a modular, system-of-systems approach to adapt an aircraft to provide close air support, and deliver that capability via real-time coordination with ground forces,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager.
“The successful tests point the way to a new model in which the addition of close air support, communications and live ISR support functions to any aircraft would be straightforward, and ground forces would have on-demand access to situational awareness data, modern network-enabled communications and a synchronized digital model of the evolving battlefield.”
“I am very pleased with the successful PCAS demonstration that we had during TALON REACH, where we employed an armed and networked MV-22 with both the Griffin missile and Switchblade UAS in support of our ground combat element, which was operating at a company-minus level almost 200 miles from its [higher headquarters] and any reinforcements.
Given the increasingly distributed nature of the operating environment in which our Marines operate today, I have emphasized to my team that we will network every one of our aircraft, and we’ll also look for ways to arm our aircraft to best fit the scope of their respective missions.
‘Every aircraft a sensor, every aircraft a connector, every aircraft an [electronic warfare] node, and every aircraft a shooter,’ are our goals. DARPA’s PCAS effort is helping us to achieve these goals, and we look forward to continuing this relationship to ensure that our Marines have the absolute best capabilities possible to accomplish any and all missions that the American people need us to accomplish.”
Quick Adaptation to a wide variety of aircraft
The PCAS test not only demonstrated new real-time communication capabilities, but also how quickly the system can adapt to different aircraft. Typically, adapting an aircraft to accept a new weapon, mounting rail and targeting system takes at least one year from initial request through live demonstration.
DARPA moved from concept to test in less than four months. The speed was made possible by the PCAS’ SLE and all-digital architecture, which leverages commercial IT products and models such as open interfaces, service-oriented software, element modularity and mobile software applications. Doing this demonstration not on an isolated range, but as part of a major service air-ground training exercise, was made possible by the Marine partners’ aggressive drive to incorporate emerging technologies to enhance warfighting capability.
As part of its conclusion of the program, DARPA is now focusing on transitioning PCAS technology demonstrated on both the A-10C and the MV-22 to different military platforms. DARPA is also working with the Army on other PCAS transition activity relevant to ground forces and manned and unmanned aircraft.
PCAS Components: PCAS-Air and PCAS-Ground.
The two main parts of the system are PCAS-Air, which consists of smart launcher electronics and a pilot tablet, and PCAS-Ground, which comprises the equipment used by the JTAC.
PCAS-Air consists of weapons and engagement management systems, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and software programmable radio communications systems. Based on tactical information, PCAS-Air’s automated algorithms would recommend optimal travel routes to the target, which weapon to use on arrival and how best to deploy it. The system is designed to enable plug-and-play hosting of tactical software and mounting of equipment on almost any aircraft.
The software programmable radio wirelessly transmits IP packets of voice, video, and data to the ground forces.
PCAS-Ground carried by soldiers consists of situational awareness and mapping software on commercial Android tablet computers.
Soldiers, by using Android tablets on the ground and in an aircraft’s cockpit can both view and exchange targeting information using icons, digital maps, and display screens; soldiers can view a pilot’s targeting pod picture in the air and permits a pilot to view target-grid coordinates and other displays from a soldiers tablet on the ground.
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.
“Close air support and similar operations rely on teamwork, and we have shown that a flexible architecture and extensible technology tool sets are key to making groundbreaking improvements in air-ground coordination,” said Dan Patt, a program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “These and other test results suggest PCAS-like approaches have the potential to provide an unprecedented synchronized understanding of the active battlefield.”
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