Raytheon is beginning work on the third phase of a multi-year project to develop a persistent close air support (PCAS) system to give ground troops faster and more accurate air support.

The company announced on 4 February that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has exercised an option allowing it to begin the work, which is worth $25.5 million over 18 months.

The announcement comes many months after the phase three work was actually awarded, in the third quarter of 2013.

Phase three involves conducting a series of flight tests and performing live-fire demonstrations of the technology, which is aimed at allowing ground troops to better coordinate air support from multiple aircraft types, and to greatly reduce strike times, the company says.

"PCAS software could enable ground troops to receive close air support sooner by improving coordination among [ground-based] controllers, airborne sensors and weapons," says Raytheon. "PCAS is designed to improve human-machine interfaces for both ground and air personnel by inserting autonomous algorithms in the decision chain, and digitally sending shared situational awareness messages."

Raytheon, which did not respond to a request for more information, is serving as systems integrator for the technology, and is working with partners Rockwell Collins, General Electric, BAE Systems and 5-D Systems.

The PCAS project, launched by DARPA in 2010 with a budget of $82 million over three years, aims to significantly advance the close air support function, which the agency says has changed little since the First World War. Today, the process typically involves paper maps and verbal communications between soldiers and pilots in the air, DARPA says. Often, strikes can take 1h to carry out.

PCAS was originally developed to work with the US Air Force's Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt combat support aircraft, but DARPA set out to integrate the technology with other manned and unmanned aircraft.

As envisioned, a PCAS system would allow ground soldiers called joint terminal attack controllers and airmen to share "real time situational awareness and weapons systems data," DARPA says. Ground agents would be able to identify multiple targets simultaneously and, working with air crews, select the most-appropriate precision-guided weapon and authorise a strike.

DARPA's goal is to decrease response times to no more than 6min.

The system is intended to work in poor weather, where it would continue to allow the military to strike stationary and moving targets using smaller, more precise munitions, DARPA says.

As currently designed, the system includes a "PCAS-air" component comprised of an internal navigation system and a weapon and engagement management system. Those computers use algorithms to recommend weapons and best routes to targets. The airborne system is designed to coordinate fire with a "PCAS-ground" system.

DARPA says it has already sent 500 tablet computers with PCAS-ground software to Afghanistan, where they were tested by ground units.

Phase one work included a review of technology, demonstration of concepts and development of target-designation technology, says DARPA.

The second phase was aimed at completing the system's design, demonstrating the ground system and ensuring the air system could be installed on multiple aircraft types at minimal cost.

Source: FlightGlobal.com