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  • Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN)

    Effective 21st-century warfare requires the ability to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike mobile targets anywhere, around the clock. Current technologies, however, have their limitations. Helicopters are relatively limited in their distance and flight time. Fixed-wing manned and unmanned aircraft can fly farther and longer but require either aircraft carriers or large, fixed land bases with runways often longer than a mile. Moreover, establishing these bases or deploying carriers requires substantial financial, diplomatic and security commitments that are incompatible with rapid response.

    Effective 21st-century warfare requires the ability to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike mobile targets anywhere, around the clock. Current technologies, however, have their limitations. Helicopters are relatively limited in their distance and flight time. Fixed-wing manned and unmanned aircraft can fly farther and longer but require either aircraft carriers or large, fixed land bases with runways often longer than a mile. Moreover, establishing these bases or deploying carriers requires substantial financial, diplomatic and security commitments that are incompatible with rapid response.

    To help overcome these challenges and expand DoD options, DARPA launched the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program. In May 2014 DARPA and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) signed a memorandum of agreement making the program a joint effort—calling it Tern. Tern builds on DARPA’s TERN program and seeks to combine the strengths of both land- and sea-based approaches to supporting airborne assets. Tern envisions using smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft (UAVs). Named after the family of seabirds known for flight endurance – many species migrate thousands of miles each year – Tern aims to make it much easier, quicker and less expensive for DoD to deploy persistent ISR and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world.

    Ideally, Tern would enable on-demand, ship-based unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations without extensive, time-consuming and irreversible ship modifications. It would provide small ships with a “mission truck” that could transport ISR and strike payloads to very long distances from the host vessel. The solution would support field-interchangeable mission packages for both overland and maritime missions. It would operate from multiple ship types and in elevated sea states.

    DARPA and ONR envision Tern as improving aviation capabilities from smaller ships substantially beyond the current state-of-the-art. The program has three planned phases. The first two phases focus on preliminary design and risk reduction for the Tern system. In Phase 3, a performer would be selected to build a full-scale demonstrator Tern system for ground-based testing, culminating in an at-sea demonstration of launch and recovery.

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