Electronic Weapons: The Next Big Thing

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September 27, 2016: In mid-2016 the U.S. Navy successfully tested its new ship based SM-6 anti-aircraft missile hitting low flying cruise missiles too far away for the ship radar to spot. This was done with the help of an F-35 using its sensors and networked communications to provide the SM-6 missile with the location of the incoming missile. The F-35 will be replacing F-18s on U.S. carriers and this form of data sharing will make new missiles like the SM-6 able to hit targets the F-35 can see but is not carrying enough missiles to deal with. The SM-6 is the latest version of the main American naval anti-aircraft missiles. SM-6 has longer range (240 kilometers) and better guidance systems (with their own radar that can by itself find smaller, even moving, targets and hit them) that make this data sharing work.

This sort of thing, now called DTS (Distributed Targeting System) has been around for decades but the technology was never efficient or cheap enough to be used by lots of aircraft. That is changing now as most American warplanes are equipped for this kind of digital data sharing. Back in the 1980s the U.S. Air Force developed a DTS system for their main SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) aircraft, the electronics laden F-4G "Wild Weasels". One or more F-4Gs went in ahead of the fighters and bombers to clear out the enemy surface to air missiles (SAMs) and radars. The F-4G would often detect far more targets than it had missiles for. This showed DTS could work, but only in a select few aircraft.

By the 1990s work in this area concentrated on a new technology; 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 current operations. 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 and since 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 was a work in progress for a long time, just as it was in the commercial sector (where progress has also been slow to achieve widespread 4G smart phone service.) In 2005 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. By the end of the decade 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.

 


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