Related Video Above: Hypersonics
Programmable air-burst fuses, point detonation missiles, fragmenting warheads and high-speed kinetic energy rounds can all quickly exact lethal consequences on the battlefield, yet these effects of course rely upon the range, precision accuracy, guidance and long-range fidelity of sensors and targeting systems.
Newer projectiles such as hypersonic weapons and advanced air-dropped and air-to-air weapons of course need to function effectively in a highly contested, high-threat environment where guidance systems will be jammed, RF signals might be interrupted and communications networks might be rendered ineffective by various enemy tactics.
Confronting these new, emerging and uniquely modern threats, intended to deny access or an ability to attack, is precisely why the Army is now embarking upon a number of fast-tracked efforts to improve targeting and sensing so that weapons can achieve the desired effect. One of these efforts can be found in a recent technology development deal between the U.S. Army and General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems to advance sensing and targeting technologies to a new level.
Cooperative Research and Development Agreement
It’s called a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between industry and Army experts to explore the realm of the possible regarding advanced sensing technologies such as infrared seekers, high-resolution electro-optical infrared cameras and Laser Detection and Ranging system to support long-range precision fires.
While many of the details or specifics of the deal are not likely to be available for security reasons, a statement from GA-EMS does say it will explore possibilities with precision munitions, hypersonics, lasers and other kinds of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance technologies.
CRADA agreements like these are often multifaceted, meaning they can explore both near term options suitable for rapid integration as well as some kind of longer-term focused basic-research approaches.
Much of the focus, given the GA-Army deal’s emphasis on overcoming Anti-Access/Area Denial strategies likely to be employed by technologically sophisticated adversaries. Therefore, this would include countering countermeasures, achieving extremely detailed imaging and targeting specifics from safer standoff ranges, and maintaining functionality in a super high threat environment expected to contain EW attacks, jamming systems, GPS hacking and other kinds of attempted networking intrusions.
“GA-EMS specializes in developing low size, weight, power and cost solutions,” a statement from the company said.
Size Weight & Power (SWAP)
Size, Weight and Power, referred to at the Pentagon as SWAP, is a technological approach that, among other things, engineers smaller form factor hardware systems equipped with high-speed computer processing and miniaturized high-resolution sensing.
This changes the paradigm for attack as smaller sensors are able to maintain high levels of power efficiency, range and image resolution on smaller drones, fixed wing aircraft to achieve zoom in close range image gathering while operating at higher altitudes and therefore safer, more survivable distances.
Such technological advances in the realm of sensing, many of which have now been underway for several years, enable drones such as a Reaper to gather and process high-fidelity, accurate video images close up to a target while hovering at a safer altitude.
Drawing upon GA’s expertise with SWAP, a Reaper could also for instance fire higher-powered, more precise and longer-range lasers by virtue of being able to operate with small, yet highly powerful and efficient sources of transportable electricity.
The Reaper has also been upgraded with a universal weapons interface to expand its weapons envelope, something which would of course be successfully leveraged to a much fuller extent should the drones sensing and targeting acquisition technologies reach new levels of proficiency.
Other possible areas of exploration between GA-EMS and the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center could include hardening of RF targeting systems for precision-guided missiles or rockets.
For example, one technique being explored is called “frequency hopping,” meaning a weapon’s guidance system can switch from one frequency to another in the event that a particular frequency is jammed, occupied or disabled by an enemy.
While the spectrum is finite, there are a variety of different electromagnetic frequencies and RF signals that might be able to operate within to essentially ensure that a weapon stays its course toward its target despite operating in an extremely high-threat, contested jamming and EW kind of enemy environment.
Yet another evolving tactic is something called “collaborative bombing,” such as the Air Force’s Golden Horde program, wherein two air drop bombs coordinate targeting information through a two-way independent data link autonomously between just the two bombs to help discern targets and adjust flight trajectory mid-course as needed.
Adjusting course in flight to overcome countermeasures or respond to moving targets and new information is increasingly being achieved through AI-enabled autonomy and hardened datalinking between manned platforms, drones and the weapons systems they operate.
Much of the emerging target acquisition and sensing technology is not only made possible through smaller form factors and greater power efficiency, but also through networking and computer processing.
Networking and Computer Processing
Essentially various kinds of computer processing and data sharing at the point of collection enable targeting specifics to be gathered, analyzed and even bounced off of a seemingly limitless database in seconds.
Much of this can function at even higher op tempos should AI-enabled computer algorithms be used to identify points of relevance within hours or massive volumes of gathered sensor data as well as make target identifications to pass information along or even make recommendations to human decision-makers.
Target acquisition advancements can not only identify targets but also use computing to draw comparisons with previous scenarios and available weapons to essentially “recommend” courses of action or pair sensors to shooters in a given tactical situation.
Laser systems can also be used as optical sensors to either help identify targets or simply pass information. Additional advances will likely take shape in the form of a threat database not unlike the F-35s well known Mission Data Files which include a detailed compilation of likely targets in a given geographical area. This on board computer database or library, compares incoming sensor data against fixed or “known” information to make immediate identifications. Should this kind of technology be improved with GA’s SWAP expertise, then smaller platforms such as drones.
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