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  • Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS)

    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. Unfortunately, air-ground fire coordination—referred to as Close Air Support or CAS—has changed little since its emergence in World War I. Pilots and dismounted ground agents 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. It can take up to an hour to confer, get in position and strike—time in which targets can attack first or move out of reach.

    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. Unfortunately, air-ground fire coordination—referred to as Close Air Support or CAS—has changed little since its emergence in World War I. Pilots and dismounted ground agents 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. It can take up to an hour to confer, get in position and strike—time in which targets can attack first or move out of reach.

    DARPA created the Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program in July 2010 to help address these challenges. PCAS seeks to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness by enabling dismounted ground agents—Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs)—and combat aircrews to share real-time situational awareness and weapons systems data. The system would enable ground agents to quickly and positively identify multiple targets simultaneously. JTACs and aircrews 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.

    The program envisions numerous benefits, including:

    • Reducing the time from calling in a strike to the weapon hitting the target by a factor of 10, from up to 60 minutes down to just 6 minutes  
    • Direct coordination of airstrikes by a ground agent from manned or unmanned air vehicles
    • Improved speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces
    • Use of smaller, more precise munitions against smaller and moving targets in degraded visual environments
    • Graceful degradation of services—if one piece of the system fails, warfighters would still retain CAS capability

    PCAS designs currently include two main components, PCAS-Air and PCAS-Ground. PCAS-Air would be a platform-agnostic, plug-and-play system that would consist of an internal navigation system, weapons and engagement management systems, and high-speed data transfer 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.

    PCAS-Air would communicate with JTACs through PCAS-Ground, a suite of technologies enabling improved mobility, situational awareness and communications for fire coordination. Parts of PCAS-Ground have already had field trials that mark some of the first large-scale use of commercial tablets for air-ground fire coordination. From December 2012 through March 2013, DARPA deployed 500 Android tablets equipped with PCAS-Ground situational awareness software to units stationed in Afghanistan. Field reports show that PCAS-Ground replaced those units’ legacy paper maps, dramatically improving ground forces’ ability to quickly and safely coordinate air engagements.

    DARPA expects to develop PCAS in three phases, with a projected budget of $82 million from FY2011 to FY2014:

    • Phase I (March 2011-December 2012) accomplishments include:
      • Successful comprehensive review of systems requirements
      • Successful demonstration of conceptual PCAS interfaces for JTACs and pilots
      • Successful development of target designation technology
       
    • Phase II (January 2013—December 2013) included a rescope in April 2013, based on user feedback, to focus on augmenting the effectiveness of multiple fixed-wing, rotary-wing and unmanned systems. Rapid transition across the Services is a priority, as is quick, inexpensive installation with minimal impact on aircraft. Current goals include:
      • Complete a comprehensive design of the PCAS demonstration system, including initial work on aircraft integration
      • Successfully demonstrate the PCAS-Ground software and communications architecture
       
    • Phase III (January 2014—mid-2014) goals include:
      • Prepare for and successfully conduct a series of flight tests and live-fire demonstrations
       

    Raytheon is the systems integrator for PCAS going into Phase II. Northrop Grumman Electronics Systems was a co-lead systems integrator for Phase I. 

  • Program Images

    DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program aims to enable ground forces and combat aircrews to jointly select and employ precision-guided weapons from a diverse set of airborne platforms. The program seeks to leverage advances in computing and communications technologies to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness, as well as improve the speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces. 

    Click for High-Resolution Image
    DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program aims to enable ground forces and combat aircrews to jointly select and employ precision-guided weapons from a diverse set of airborne platforms. The program seeks to leverage advances in computing and communications technologies to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness, as well as improve the speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces.

     

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