(Washington, D.C.) Lurking above enemy fire to support attacking infantry, beaming time-sensitive target specifics to maneuvering armed vehicles and processing seemingly limitless volumes of incoming data to find critical targets … are a few of the missions small, armed, fixed-wing surveillance planes are built to fly.
Increasingly, surveillance aircraft are able to draw upon smaller form factors, higher resolution, longer-range cameras and high-speed on-board computer processing to find, analyze and transmit pressing, time-sensitive target specifics amid fast-moving warfare.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft integrators such as MAG Aerospace have in recent years been stepping up efforts to engineer manned & unmanned surveillance platforms able to introduce new abilities to perform crucial time-sensitive sense, network and attack missions.
Aircraft such as MAG’s MC-208 Guardian aircraft have been specifically built for this process in support of the Pentagon’s high priority Joint All Domain Command and Control effort (JADC2) intended to massively expedite the often-discussed “sensor-to-shooter” warzone decision-making process.
The Guardian is built to leverage advanced computer automation, AI and a new generation of sensing technologies to support the JADC2 process, which relies not only upon an ability to find targets with full motion video cameras but consolidate, organize, analyze and “network” data across a disaggregated force of land, air, sea and space manned and unmanned war platforms.
The tactical advantage associated with high-altitude drones is both established and well known, yet a lesser understood phenomenon is the extent to which high-tech, armed manned surveillance planes can process key information at the point of attack, reducing latency and optimizing critical warzone decision-making. The concept is to architect a platform capable of itself completing the entire kill-web process, yet also operate as a critical node within a dispersed, meshed network of combat “nodes” able to share data across the force in real-time.
MC-208 Guardian: A JADC2 System
“The MC 208 is armed. We see it as a JADC2 system in and of itself. You can see the data you are collecting. You can have it back on board the aircraft and you can launch weapons from that aircraft. We’re working on the networks, designing the communications architecture, to support JADC2, and we are supporting data exploitation. We're doing the training for people to understand how to utilize FMV feeds coming off the aircraft,” Justin Janaskie, Chief Technical Officer, MAG Aerospace, told Warrior in an interview.
The Guardian operates with Full Motion Video EO/IR sensors and four weapons-capable “hard points,” each able to carry 525lbs of weapons that can fire AGM-114 HELLFIRE missiles, Hydra 70 laser-guided rockets and KR-2 Talons, among others.
“We would consider our Guardian platform as a JADC2 system to complement what our customers need. We can call it a ‘turnkey’ JADC2,” he said.
While specific weapons and “engaging” the enemy with attacks is the ultimate result of the process, the often-lesser emphasized data gathering, analyzing and sharing which precedes the actual “firing” is the foundation of JADC2.
Given this, it is naturally an information analysis process greatly fortified by AI, wherein advanced algorithms can discern new incoming information, bounce it off of a vast or seemingly limitless database to draw comparisons, perform analyses, solve problems and perform the analytics necessary to inform decision-makers often within milliseconds.
“From our perspective, we really want to call it sensor to decision-maker. And we want to get that information to those decision makers as quickly, rapidly, and as seamlessly as possible,”” Janaskie said. The rationale for focusing on decision makers is due to a fundamental transition that not all battles now and in the future will rely on shooters with physical weapons.
Guardian-mounted sensors are engineered to connect to ground command and control centers, drones, fixed wing aircraft and even Navy ships or armored ground vehicles, while also heavily synergized with space nodes as well. Along these lines, MAG does a lot of internal research and development work to integrate cutting edge networking and communications architectures into Low Earth Orbit Satellites.
“We want to minimize the number of different communication terminals that data has to go through to get to that decision maker or shooter. And we want to do it without interruption whether it's routing through satellites to the ground or through other airborne assets. We are using our architecture to seamlessly transfer that data,” Janaskie said.
The ultimate aim of this process, Janaskie explained, will be to have LEO communications architecture become a backbone for all of MAG’s design efforts including directly on the Guardian aircraft to support a data transport layer designed to “get our sensor data off the aircraft to a decision maker.”
The MAG effort also extends to leveraging 5G data networking to lower latency and further augment its LEO satellite communications architectures.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.