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.
Tern is an advanced technology development program that seeks to design, develop, and demonstrate a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft system and related technologies that enable future launch, recovery, and operations from small ships. The program seeks to develop systems and technologies to enable a future air vehicle that could provide persistent ISR and strike capabilities beyond the limited range and endurance provided by existing helicopter platforms.
Tern is an evolution of DARPA’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program, which culminated in successful Conceptual Design Reviews in summer 2014. In May 2014, DARPA and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) signed a Memorandum of Agreement making the program a joint effort named Tern. In October 2015, the Tern program passed a significant milestone with the successful completion Phase II preliminary design, culminating in a successful Preliminary Design Review.
Currently in Phase 3, the program is moving towards completion of detailed design activities. In this phase, DARPA plans to build a full-scale demonstrator system. Initial on-land testing, if successful, will progress to at-sea demonstrations of takeoff, transition to and from horizontal flight, and landing—all from a test platform with a deck size similar to that of a destroyer or other small surface-combat vessel.
Tern seeks to enable on-demand, ship-based unmanned aircraft system (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 long distances from the host vessel. A modular architecture would enable field-interchangeable mission packages for both overland and maritime missions. It would be able to operate from multiple ship types in elevated sea states.
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