New Technology Helps Warfighters Hit Moving Targets with Precision

April 2017
Topics: Military Operations (General), Military Programs, Signal Processing, Software Testing
Moving vehicles such as trucks and tanks are a targeting challenge for aircraft. MITRE engineers participated in the first test of the JTAC battlefield kit, which helps warfighters reduce collateral damage by targeting moving vehicles more accurately.
A U.S. Air Force Airman reviewing information.

A U.S. Air Force Senior Airman reviews information he will relay to a pilot as part of a Joint Terminal Attack Controller Qualification Course at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, March 15, 2017. (Photo courtesy of U.S Air Force.)

On the battlefield, moving targets like trucks, tanks, or boats are particularly challenging for aircraft pilots and crew. This is a problem on many levels.

A small winged weapon like the Small Diameter Bomb Increment II (SDB II) can glide for many miles over several minutes to a GPS location before locking onto and striking a moving vehicle. The problem is that within that time, the moving target may have moved alongside civilians or friendly personnel—resulting in tragic collateral damage.

Having the pilots bring the aircraft close enough for a visual confirmation is also challenging. "If the attacking aircraft are too close, they lose the element of surprise and the enemy scatters," says MITRE's Steve Schlembach, lead multidiscipline systems engineer. "Add in poor weather or a low cloud cover compromising visibility, and pilots must risk a dangerously close pass or abort the mission."

MITRE has been deeply involved in a solution to provide pilots—and warfighters—the ability to network directly into a targeting system. Late in December 2016, Schlembach and lead communications engineer Arissa Hodges joined Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Senior Materiel Leader, Colonel Kevin Hickman, at the Eglin Air Force Base test range in Florida. There, Hickman directed his team to conduct the first test of a ground-controlled targeting mission of the SDB II.

It was a success.

As Colonel Hickman wrote afterwards, "The professionalism and enthusiasm exhibited by the SDB II Operations IPT MITRE contractor team reflected the high standards of our Program Office. Again, please convey my thanks for a job well done."

Providing Common Software for Warfighters' Computers and Radios

A Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or JTAC, is an airman who directs the action of combat aircraft from a forward position on the ground. Currently, after the JTAC provides the coordinates, the pilot releases the weapon and the JTAC has no direct control of in the weapon while in flight.

But with the upgraded JTAC kit, now they (or the pilots) can "talk" with both the SDB II and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) providing full-motion video over the target.

Via a laptop or tablet, JTACs can use a diverse set of targeting cues such as laser rangefinder, map click, or video link with the UAV to guide the SDB II close to the target. After that, its own sensors lock in and complete the strike. This first test target was a stationary truck, but there are seven more tests planned, including those using moving vehicles.

"The SDB II already had digital link capacity, but we learned there were many different radio software options and settings for different users," Schlembach says. "Trying to implement them all is time-consuming, expensive, and confusing."

He says the same complexity extended to the JTAC kits. "Different manufacturers make unique hardware JTAC kits, meaning that soldiers might have to carry redundant hardware on their belts in addition to their current equipment. We thought, 'Why not provide JTAC common software for their existing computers and radios?'"

In addition, Hodges pointed out, "Integrating the JTAC capability with the SDB II weapon is a great example of MITRE applying the rigor of systems engineering to reduce the burden on the warfighter and increase their ability to carry-out successful missions. By taking a systems approach to the problem, we knew we could develop a common messaging framework for the JTAC kits while also fine-tuning the communication requirements among the JTAC kits, the aircraft, and the SDB II weapon…it really was a package deal."

MITRE's Schlembach was the primary author of the over-the-air interface control document used by Stauder Technologies and CRSA Inc., while Hodges worked with Raytheon Missile Systems to ensure accurate post-launch communication among the JTAC, the aircraft, and the SDB II weapon. The promising first test shows it is possible to have multiple types of software and hardware communicate using a common set of software instructions.

A Cost-Effective Approach Designed to Last for Decades

Schlembach says it's particularly important to ensure the JTAC kits are effective and economical, because SDB II is an important weapon for both the Air Force and the Navy. Being a quarter of the size and weight of the previous standard bomb allows the same aircraft to carry quadruple the weapons. Warfighters can make more highly targeted attacks with less collateral damage. In addition, they can abort the mission even when the SDB II is in flight if the situation on the ground changes.

"The life cycle for the SDB II is currently slated for 20 years," Schlembach says. "Think how many different computers and radios might be on the soldiers' belts within that time. The work we did here at MITRE means that they will be backwards compatible.

"That will allow the Air Force and Navy to load the JTAC software onto their existing computers and radios and take advantage of these weapons without the expense, weight, and complexity of unique hardware and software from different vendors."

—by Bill Eidson

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