A Tablet app was used to direct an Air Strike with a MV22 Osprey in a live fire training exercise

On March 27, DARPA successfully tested the full Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) prototype system for the first time as part of TALON REACH, a U.S. Marine Corps infantry/aviation training exercise conducted in the southwest region of the United States in partnership with the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One and the Marine Infantry Officer Course (IOC). The demonstration marked the first successful integration of automated, digital, real-time coordination capability into a military aircraft system, including rail-launched munitions, digital data links and advanced software in support of ground forces.

PCAS includes two main components, PCAS-Air and PCAS-Ground. PCAS-Air consists of weapons management, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and communications systems located on a modular Smart Launcher Electronics (SLE) device designed to enable plug-and-play hosting of tactical software and mounting of equipment on almost any aircraft. PCAS-Air communicates with ground forces through PCAS-Ground, a suite of situational awareness and mapping software on commercial Android tablet computers. Two interoperable PCAS-Ground software applications have been developed with government partners: the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division (NAWC-WD) and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Rome Labs.

Prior to the full-system demonstration in March, Marines in combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq, with both crisis response Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (SPMAGTFs) and with Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), have successfully employed the PCAS-Ground system component, the Marine version of which is called Kinetic Integrated Low-cost SoftWare Integrated Tactical Combat Handheld (KILSWITCH). KILSWITCH made its debut when DARPA provided more than 750 systems for testing in Afghanistan in early 2013. Since the initial DARPA fielding, Marines have implemented Android tablets in the thousands, and field reports document dramatically improved navigation, situational awareness, fires coordination and communications.

During the full-system demonstration, an IOC JTAC used a PCAS-Ground tablet to identify a target position near an unmanned truck and communicate its position to the PCAS-Air module inside a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, via a digital link added to the MV-22 as part of the PCAS modifications. PCAS enabled both the JTAC and the aircraft’s weapon systems officer, who also had a PCAS-Ground tablet, to share real-time information, enabling them to quickly confirm the shot and execute the order.

The MV-22 Osprey used in the PCAS test was modified and operated by Bell Helicopter. A PCAS-Air module was installed inside the aircraft, and the crew carried a PCAS tablet connected with the ground forces via a digital link added to the MV-22 as part of the PCAS modifications. The wireless connection allowed the aircraft’s weapons systems officer to quickly confirm the shot and execute the order.

The Marines’ PCAS tablet capability revolves around the KILSWITCH application developed by program partner NAWC-WD. At well under a pound, a KILSWITCH tablet provides Marines with actionable data and enhanced situational awareness over an extended area even when their view is otherwise obstructed. In the screenshot here, dismounted Marine infantry elements, along with a JTAC and a sensor-equipped overhead Marine CAS aircraft (the red cursor indicates where the sensor is pointing) use this system to collaborate on a complex engagement.

Another part of the exercise showed the value of the PCAS-Ground system on its own. In a simulated night ground battle between Marines and adversaries, a group of Marines had KILSWITCH tablets but very limited situational awareness of the location of friendly forces and enemy locations. Another group of Marines, also equipped with KILSWITCH tablets, arrived simultaneously and launched a small unmanned air vehicle (UAV) into the air to provide ISR and network relay capabilities. Within seconds, all the KILSWITCH tablets synced up with the UAV through the Marines’ tactical radios and automatically populated the location of all friendly forces, greatly improving both groups’ ability to coordinate and accomplish their mission.

The PCAS test not only demonstrated new real-time communication capabilities, but also how quickly the system can adapt to different aircraft. Typically, adapting an aircraft to accept a new weapon, mounting rail and targeting system takes at least one year from initial request through live demonstration. DARPA moved from concept to test in less than four months. The speed was made possible by the PCAS’ SLE and all-digital architecture, which leverages commercial IT products and models such as open interfaces, service-oriented software, element modularity and mobile software applications. Doing this demonstration not on an isolated range, but as part of a major service air-ground training exercise, was made possible by the Marine partners’ aggressive drive to incorporate emerging technologies to enhance warfighting capability.

The test event leveraged efforts from PCAS industry partners, including Raytheon Missile Systems, Bell Helicopter and Rockwell Collins, and included system elements from Kranze Technological Solutions, L-3 Wescam and AeroVironment, Inc.

In addition to the MV-22 demonstration, DARPA is also working on transitioning the system to unmanned platforms with another service partner and performing upcoming flight demonstrations using a U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft.