By Amaani Lyle
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 10, 2014 – A new program enables controllers and combat aircrews to visualize, select and employ guided weapons from a diverse set of airborne platforms, an instructor told the DARPA Congressional Tech Showcase here yesterday.
Marine Corps Maj. Thomas Short, an instructor at the Marine Corps Aviation Weapons School, Yuma, Ariz., describes DARPA’s Persistent Close Air Support program as precise and prompt with its digital air-to-ground coordination and shared situational awareness.
Short said ground operators supporting multiple positions can now identify and target sectors and compounds, responding to the same information pilots see.
"I can get targeting data and information elevation off a specific compound … add a point, start battle tracking and moving around,” Short said. “This capability did not always exist in the battlefield; it specifically did not exist in a foreign factor.”
The Marine Corps used a specially annotated map to coordinate battlefield actions, but Short noticed a way to enhance the grid’s effectiveness by capitalizing on a tablet solution he’d seen downrange.
“There’s a special series of these produced by the Marine Corps, and they’re incredibly effective,” Short said. “But there’s so many of them and with limited aircraft, it’s very difficult for us to manage those and get the right graphic.”
So when Short returned from his tour in Afghanistan as a joint terminal attack controller air officer, he asked colleagues at the weapons school how to incorporate and standardize the imagery between pilots and ground operators.
Concurrently, DARPA was working on the PCAS program with Naval Aviation Weapons Center Development Lab in China Lake, Calif., developing similar software to be used by Naval Special Warfare, Short said.
The major contacted DARPA and the lab, and soon provided input to help shape the project with an operational impact.
“We installed a grid reference graphic originally developed by the Special Operations community, then the Marine Corps started using it in 2004 when they took Fallujah in Operation Phantom Fury,” Short reported. “We outlaid a grid reference graphic for all of Fallujah to help Marines rapidly coordinate aviation support as well as ground support.”
DARPA was developing the program for future use, but Short urged them to field the technology at the time to help Marines gain an operational advantage.“They recognized an opportunity to take our input from field use and make their program better [while providing] Marines the capability we need right now,” Short said.
As such, DARPA funded for operational test evaluation of 1,500 devices that Marines are now using in Afghanistan.
“It has been a game changer for us,” Short said. “It saves Marine lives on a daily basis.”
Short said he hopes the program’s future involves the standardization of graphics carried forward to each of the services.
“We have graphics that are rapidly available and tactically function in digital formats on devices from which they can be pulled, distributed and operated,” Short explained.
The challenge, however, is to identify the security risks and find the right people to mitigate them.
“Since we have such a growth in mobile computing technology, we need to find a way to capitalize on that, mitigate those risks and offer that to the operator,” the major said.
The PCAS program will continue testing through 2015.