September 10, 2010: The U.S. Navy has successfully tested a new target recognition system using technology similar to what its submarines have used for decades. The DTS (Distributed Targeting System) is being tested on F-18Es. What it does is use the aircraft radar detector or thermal (heat sensing) sight to capture either the shape of a target (from the thermal sight) or pattern of electronic signals from the radar detector, to identify what is down there. It does this by using an electronic library of signals and images to find a comparable signal or image. Submarines use a similar system to identify what is out there, by using special sensors to hear sounds and compare them to a library of known sounds (of ships, subs and all manner of underwater creatures and events.) DTS also allows the pilot to transfer target information to other aircraft, or ships, or ground forces. Thus if an F-18 comes across more targets than it can handle, the target info can be quickly shared.
This is all about the next big thing in warfare; data fusion. Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and other sensor data (sensor fusion) and other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and combining it to provide commanders with a better understanding of the current operation. In the last decade, new technology, like DTS, now allows pilots to find targets in the dark, quickly identify them, and attack with precision bombs and missiles.
This trend has been going on for a century, especially when it became possible, a just before World War I, to get aerial photographs. Around the same time, radio and telephone allowed information to move a lot faster, from a lot farther away. Battles were fought over a much larger area. It was no longer practical to sit on a horse and view the battlefield.
Now, early in the 21st century, there are a lot more sensors (vidcams on aircraft and UAVs, plus radars and electronic eavesdropping). Most importantly, there are cheap, powerful and plentiful computers. Finally, there are new techniques for quickly analyzing this flood of data (starting with Operations Research, invented in the 1930s and used successfully during World War II). American commanders are developing new ways to examine the "battle space" and quickly react to new opportunities, before the enemy can.
DTS is not a random event. For over a decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to develop equipment that would allow the aircraft (including UAVs) of all three services to be able to communicate digitally (as in a battlefield Internet). Getting "battlefield broadband" to operate reliably has been a work in progress, just as it has been in the commercial sector (where progress has also been slow to achieve widespread 4G smart phone service.) Five years ago, a test had an army UH-60A helicopter, a navy F-18 and an air force F-15E, sitting on the ground, sending and receiving digital data. A ground station was also tied into the network. The successful test demonstrated that all three services had successfully modified their communications gear to handle the same (USAF Link 16) data. This was followed by tests with the aircraft in the air, including an army UAV and an AH-64 helicopter gunship, followed by tests with aircraft firing weapons, using target data from another aircraft, or someone on the ground. In the next few years, the Department of Defense wants to have the capability for troops on the ground, to share targeting data (including live video), with aircraft, and vice versa. Sort of battlefield video conferencing, with weapons. DTS is an outgrowth of this, with the addition of image and electronic signal libraries.
At this point, most of the effort is going into making the system reliable enough to withstand the rigors of combat situations. If the system isn't reliable enough, the troops won't use it. Simple as that. During World War II, the military first encountered high-tech gear that was simply ignored by the troops, because the stuff did not work, or work well enough to depend on in a life and death situation. Those attitudes have continued, and developers know that if their gear is not robust enough, it will be rejected (unofficially, of course) by the troops.
A new generation of American commanders are also learning, on the battlefield, how powerful information fusion is as a weapon, or at least as a tool for determining where to point the weapons. This is just the beginning of high speed, multi-sensor information fusion on the battlefield, and the tool will only grow in power and effectiveness.