Darpa Plots Death From Above, On-Demand
(Wired) Before a bomb gets dropped in Afghanistan, dozens of people weigh in: Air controllers bark coordinates over a radio; officers double-check the target’s location against digital maps; pilots survey the scene with cameras from on high; far-flung intelligence analysts scour the plane’s footage and discuss it in a secure chat room; military lawyers make sure the strike complies with the rules of war; commanders weigh the potential combat benefits of a bomb against the risks of civilian deaths.
Darpa would like to cut out all those middle men. Instead, the Pentagon’s R&D arm wants to build an air strike network with exactly two nodes: the air controller on the ground, and the robotic, heavily-armed airplane in the sky. Darpa calls the project Persistent Close Air Support, or PCAS. Think of it as death-from-above — on demand.
The goal, Darpa says in an announcement to prospective researchers, is to give the Joint Terminal Attack Controller — that’s the guy who usually coordinates air strikes in an infantry unit — “the ability to visualize, select and employ weapons at the time of their choosing.”
The JTAC will dial up these munitions from an “optionally manned/unmanned” A-10 “Warthog.” Armed with an array of rockets, missiles, bombs and a 30mm gatling gun, it’s one of the most brutally effective airplanes ever invented for hitting ground targets. In a firefight in early 2008, a single Special Forces sergeant called in Warthogs for more than 70 air strikes, incapacitating as many as 240 insurgents.
But that’s not how U.S. troops roll these days. Concerned that civilian casualties were handing the Taliban propaganda victories, General Stanley McChrystal issued tight new restrictions on the use of air power in Afghanistan; everyone from the very top of the chain of command down to the grunt can get involved in the decision to drop a bomb. Incoming commander General David Petraeus may change those guidelines a bit, but he almost certainly won’t rescind ‘em.
It’s only one of a number of inefficiencies Darpa sees in today’s close air support (CAS) missions. “The majority of CAS is coordinated by voice over the radio. CAS platform talk-ons can be lengthy and full of errors. Due to pilot talk-on complexity only one target set can be handled at a time.”
A garbled radio request can lead to a wrong set of coordinates passed. And that can lead to an attack going astray, with innocents killed and property smashed. No one wants that, of course. But in Afghanistan, the bugs are, in a sense, used as features, slowing down (and double-checking) air strike requests. Calling a bomb can happen in as little as a few minutes, depending on location of the plane and the urgency of the request. A few extra minutes of so-called “tactical patience” can lead to a resolution of the conflict, with no air strike at all.
That’s the attitude today. In future conflicts, it could change. So, Darpa is aiming to give the air controller the ability to “request and control near-instantaneous airborne fire support.”
The program kicks off with a workshop in two weeks. The next step is to “identify and mature the critical enabling technologies necessary to enable JTAC interfaces at the tactical level to be able to accurately visualize and employ weapons on target from the A-10 aircraft.” At the end of the effort, Darpa plans to conclude “with a live-fire demonstration.”