August 16, 2010:
The U.S. Department of Defense is developing a device that enables the ground controller, who usually talks pilots down to the location of a ground target, to take control of sensors (cameras and ground radars) and weapons on UAVs, or even manned aircraft, and pull the trigger himself. Developing this gear (PCAS, or Precision Close Air Support) is actually not a major undertaking, because some of it already exists.
That all began eight years ago, when a Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130 or other aircraft overhead. In particular, the soldiers wanted the capability of the AC-130 getting video from a Predator that had spotted something the AC-130 was being sent to destroy. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from Predators and combat aircraft. At that time, the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft, or the UAV operators (who were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link), but not the guys closest to the fighting, on the ground.Thus ground troops had to radio and ask the air force what could be seen on the video, and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.
The air force went to work, and in two weeks had a prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. Called ROVER I, the device was not terribly portable, but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer, and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. This proved very useful. A few months later, ROVER II appeared, which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. By late 2004, Rover III, a 12 pound unit built to be carried in a backpack, was put into service. New models kept appearing, and the current one can grab video feeds from army, marine and air force UAVs and bomber targeting pods (which have great resolution, even when the aircraft are 20,000 feet up.) The latest Rover allows users to point and click on targets to be hit. With ROVER IV, the bomber pilot, or UAV operator, is looking at the same video as the ground troops, and can confirm that the indicated target is what is to be hit. This is particularly important in urban warfare, where the building next door might be full of innocent civilians.
The ROVER gear was initially operated, mostly, by air force ground controllers. The larger number of Rover units out there now allows platoon leaders and company commanders access, as well as Special Forces teams and some army or marine ground patrols. PCAS will replace Rover, and enable ground controllers to take control of any aircraft within range, and use its sensors to more quickly find the target (which the controller can usually see from the ground) and release the smart bomb. PCAS will also be able to control the A-10's 30mm autocannon, as well as unguided rockets and guided missiles like Maverick. PCAS will also reduce errors, and generally improve the quality of air support. The first live demonstration of PCAS is supposed to take place within four years.