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US Army working on Next generation swarms of hyper precision munitions that can penetrate A2/AD environment and hit a wide variety of dispersed targets

One of the most important developments in the history of twentieth century warfare has been the emergence of the precision weapon: the weapon which can be aimed and directed against a single target, relying on external guidance or its own guidance system. Launched from aircraft, ships, submarines, and land vehicles, or even by individual soldiers on the ground, the precision weapon exemplifies the principle of the low-cost threat that forces a high-cost and complicated defence.


For example in the Gulf War, only 4.3 per cent of the tonnage expended on Iraqi forces by American airmen were precision munitions consisting of laser-guided bombs, Yet they are credited with causing approximately 75 per cent of the serious damage inflicted upon Iraqi strategic and operational targets. It was, overall, the laser- guided bomb that dominated the battlefield, the counter-air campaign against Iraqi airfields, strikes against command and control and leadership targets, and the anti-bridge and rail campaign


Against point targets, laser-guided bombs offered distinct advantages over ‘dumb’ bombs. The most obvious was that the guided bombs could correct for ballistic and release errors in flight. Explosive loads could also be more accurately tailored for the target, since the planner could assume most bombs would strike in the place and manner expected. Unlike ‘dumb’ bombs, LGB’s released from medium to high altitude were highly accurate … Desert Storm reconfirmed that LGB’s possessed a near single-bomb target-destruction capability, an unprecedented if not revolutionary development in aerial warfare.


However, Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark, authors of a new report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments have examined the future of precision strike warfare. An enemy with effective countermeasures against platforms — generally aircraft or ships — or individual PGMs will reduce the effectiveness of precision strike weapons, Gunzinger noted.


A US military accustomed to operating in a permissive environment, where “pretty much 100 percent of its PGMs would arrive on target” and where strike planners often think of how many targets can be hit per aircraft sortie, might see a significant drop in effectiveness, to maybe 50 percent.


For example modern tanks like Armata are designed with active protection systems designed to kill incoming missiles before they even strike the tank. Frank Fresconi, of Army Research Laboratory’s Aeromechanics and Flight Control Group, in Maryland is working on Collaborative Cooperative Engagement (CCOE) programme which aims to develop a swarm of precision weapons which can defeat the countermeasures which are only designed to protect against one or two simultaneous missile attack.

While Information technology advances are enabling, new generation of guided munitions that allow extremely precise position location and navigation capability as well as miniaturization of the fuses, sensors and guidance systems, while reducing their costs. Still the costs of PGM are high as George Bush junior once memorably put it, he was not prepared to “fire a $2m missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt”.


Parent–Child delivery strategy

Frank Fresconi are also proposing a Parent-Child scheme used to achieve performance metrics with simplified components and reduce overall costs.  In this paradigm, a parent flight body features higher performance components (e.g., more feedback sensors, higher precision actuators, faster processors) which are exercised to accurately fly to the complex target and gather information useful for the child flight bodies. The children are shed from the parent body as appropriate, depending on the mission, and are equipped with simpler components (e.g., reduced sensor suite, minimal actuation). This notion exercises swarming behaviors to enable efficient delivery of simple, modular bodies to desired arbitrary locations against complex targets.


The idea is to link an individual smart munition with a flock of dumber, cheaper companions. The smart weapon handles all of the tricky navigation and target identification; its companions just have to work out where they are in relation to their master, and then go where they are told. Data are passed between them in brief radio chirps.


The precision swarm of smart weapons shall also be having capabilities of accurately engaging targets in urban terrain with low collateral damage. The terrorists and other groups resort to Asymmetric Warfare that tries to counter technological superiority by exploiting the limitations and vulnerabilities of high-tech weapon and platforms, with relatively simple, low-cost countermeasures, tactics and solutions like dispersion and concealment tactics. A new generation of cut-price precision munitions could change the way America’s army wages war,  a barrage landing on a town would be more likely to hit only military targets, while—so the researchers hope—leaving civilians unharmed.


Image-based navigational technology

The team also aiming to improve the guidance and navigation of smart munitions so that they can operate in A2/AD environment. Many existing smart weapons use GPS, which relies on signals from satellites that may be jammed by a sophisticated opponent. Others use laser guidance, which demands a soldier be close enough to the target that he can highlight it with a laser designator. The new architecture will avoid both those drawbacks by using optical techniques: guiding itself by spotting landmarks, and recognizing targets visually. Dr Fresconi says the inspiration for the optical sensors came from the commercial world, where facial-recognition systems are used by everyone from Facebook to shops, policemen and airports.


The  parent body contains image-based navigational technology and electromechanically actuated canards. Image-based navigation provides extremely accurate targeting for the parent body and also low latency information regarding optimal patterns for child bodies against complex target arrays. The electromechanical-actuation technology allows for the high maneuverability necessary for gliding, loitering, or intercepting moving and defilade targets. The benefits of these components are often offset by added cost and complexity.


As a means of producing arbitrary terminal patterns without exorbitant cost, the child bodies  feature a simple ranging device, such as a radar unit, and a ring of jet thrusters. As the body rolls, the ranging device permits the relative spacing to surrounding bodies to be assessed. Thruster commands can then be issued depending on the desired pattern of parent and child bodies. Communication between bodies (e.g., sensor fusion, tasking of children by parent) may also enhance performance.


The guidance kit is the hardest part of precision-guided artillery, because you have to make electronics that can still function after being literally fired out of cannon. That shock imposes about 15,000 times the force of gravity from an Army 155 mm howitzer. Munitions must work weather they have been “soft launched”—dropped from a helicopter or a drone, but also when it has been fired out of a cannon or launched by a rocket. That will subject the electronics to extremely high g-forces, as they are accelerated to several times the speed of sound in milliseconds, or spun at thousands of revolutions per second when fired from rifled artillery barrels.


Team is also aiming to hit the moving targets with extreme accuracy. “Rather than having several seconds to scan their targets at leisure, as airport systems do, missiles will need to scan, recognise and act in milliseconds. And once the targets have been found, the weapons will need to be able to turn sharply at high speed. To do that, the team is fitting them with fins that deploy after launch, and pondering using sideways-facing rockets to give them even more agility.”


Dr Fresconi and his team are developing the electronic building blocks needed to assemble a wide range of different weapons. The results might be fired from a mortar, from cannon; from a rocket launcher mounted on a lorry, or from the sort of weapon an individual solider might carry. In each case, a shell or rocket would release a swarm of submunitions. Under the guidance of the master weapon, these might disperse to attack individual enemy foxholes, or work together to hit a single target like a tank or a bunker simultaneously.


Enable new tactics

As those weapons reach the battlefield, they will enable the use of new tactics. The manoeuvring munitions can carry out what the Army calls counter-defilade fire—hitting a sniper hiding behind a wall, for example, or troops concealed in trenches. Dr Fresconi also talks about “hyper precision” and being able to home in on a target’s weakest spot, or striking simultaneously at a precise point for maximum effect. And the munitions will afford a new capability for engaging dispersed targets. These might be enemy foot soldiers scattered over a wide area—or, in future, a swarm of hostile incoming drones. One missile full of Collaborative Cooperative munitions might hit the lot.


In recent tests a flock of multiple projectiles successfully navigated together. However, full realisation of the technology will take at least a decade to mature. The plan is to start big and scale down. CCOE will roll out gradually, says Dr Fresconi, with successive generations getting smarter and fitting into ever-smaller weapons.



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