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29 August 2005, 20:00

U.S. Air Force Special Tactics combat controllers are testing spiral technology developments meant to increase the capability and decrease the weight of their battlefield air operations kit.

By Frank Colucci

U.S. Air Force Special Tactics combat controllers are testing spiral technology developments meant to increase the capability and decrease the weight of their battlefield air operations (BAO) kit. “We’re constantly buying new terminal control gear and replacing it with new or developmental stuff,” said combat controller Master Sergeant Chris Crutchfield, Special Tactics representative in the AFSOC Advanced Technology Office at Hurlburt Field, FL. Some items, such as targeting software for toughened notebook computers, enhance existing equipment. Others, such as a rucksack-portable unmanned aerial vehicle, provide new battlefield targeting opportunities with little additional weight. “Our guys like very small, very high-capability equipment,” Crutchfield observed.

The joint terminal attack controller (TAC) embedded in ground combat units is an Air Force combat controller with special training. “It’s a qualification for someone who is qualified to talk to planes and drop bombs,” Crutchfield explained. However, early experience in Operation Enduring Freedom showed linking specially trained TACs with joint-service attack aircraft could still be slow and prone to dangerous errors. Also, the weight of equipment carried by a controller in the field could exceed 160 pounds.

Air Force Special Operations Command considers the BAO kit a system of kill-chain enhancement tools to increase the capability and halve the weight carried by TACs. Phase one, launched in early 2002, started purchases of commercial-off-the-shelf equipment for units to share and evaluate. “We bought a bunch of equipment to make sure there was enough stuff to go around,” Crutchfield said. “We kind of keep going through that process—it’s evolutionary.”

Changes to COTS equipment have been commercialized. For example, new screen filters made the backlit displays on Panasonic Toughbook computers compatible with night vision goggles.

Another component is a wearable display system being developed by Icuiti Corporation. Head mounted displays have been in use around the military for years, but most have been helmet-mounted, which poses a challenge for operators not wearing helmets. Past systems have also been bulky and obstructed the user’s vision. Icuiti answered this with the TAC-EYE, a low power, microdisplay system that mounts to an operator’s goggles.

Phase two of the BAO kit created the Special Tactics System Program Office to integrate the equipment with the customer input. General Dynamics C4 Systems received a contract to prototype Itronix GoBook tablet computers, powered by Medis direct liquid fuel cells, for evaluation as a potential replacement for the Toughbook. The Systems Program Office (SPO) recently adapted a short-range wireless device to link a laser rangefinder and a GPS navigator. Crutchfield explained, “The team created this tiny little nub and deleted the weight of a long wire.”

BAO kit phase three launched five category one advanced technology demonstrations (ATD) funded and conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Five AFRL directorates—sensors, information, propulsion, munitions and human effectiveness—will demonstrate state-of-the-art technologies that may transition to production applications. The Special Tactics representative in the AFSOC Advanced Technology Office interfaces with AFRL to manage the demonstrations and SPO to bring promising technologies to production.

Integrated Targeting Device

The integrated targeting device (ITD) will house a coded laser target designator/laser rangefinder, ballistic wind sensor, GPS and inertial MAGU navigators, infrared pointer, green beam laser, and a 10 x 30 zoom scope all in one device. “That’s the hardest thing for us to do, but it’s also the largest gain in capability,” Crutchfield said. “I don’t have to carry three or four different pieces of equipment. I’ll just have one box with different switches.” The device will also provide wireless remote operation.

ITD is expected to give TACs digital image capture and moving target tracking capabilities with digital communications to shooters. The AFRL Directed Energy directorate has the lead on laser technology development.

The ITD objective is a combination device with twice the designation range, three times the range-finding range and four times the target location accuracy of today’s laser targeting devices. However, the effort has yet to produce a field-test prototype and has refocused on conventional YAG lasers. According to Crutchfield, “We’ve played with some stuff, built some mockups. Now we’ve kind of taken a step back for speedier development.”

Battery Renewable Integrated Tactical Energy System

Led by the AFRL Propulsion Directorate, the battery renewable integrated tactical energy system (BRITES) is a wearable power supply with multiple energy sources and uses. Special tactics teams deploy for weeks at a time loaded with batteries, each commonly weighing up to 2.2 pounds and priced over $70. Different equipment can require different batteries, and the cost of power in the field is compounded by the cost and risk of resupply flights by MC-130 Combat Talons. Current batteries are also classified as hazardous cargo or waste.

AFSOC believes a common high-performance power supply has the greatest potential for weight and cost savings in the BAO kit. BRITES also promises TACs in the field operational advantages. “It’s not just weight,” Crutchfield observed, “It’s also the cube, the volume, and being smart how you apply it.” A new battery for the standard PRC-117F tactical radio, for example, would provide a redundant power supply for computers and other TAC equipment.

BRITES prototypes are now in the field. The development spiral now centers on a zinc-air hybrid power supply that charges a lithium ion battery compatible with TAC computers and radios. A switch box changes the power draw or recharges the high power density lithium ion battery from the zinc-air battery with longer draw but lower power density.

Battlefield Air Targeting Camera Autonomous Micro-air Vehicle (BATCAM)

The BATCAM is a collapsible, hand-launched UAV with a 21-inch wingspan, GPS/INS navigation and a launch weight less than 400 grams. The UAV carries two cameras, one looking forward and down for flight orientation, and the other aimed to the left for oblique surveillance when orbiting the target.

The micro UAV is controlled through a graphic user interface provided by additional software on the existing TAC computer. The intended user is the TAC with a ruggedized notebook computer. “This is for the guy on the ground,” Crutchfield said. “If he wants to capture a still [image], he can send it back.”

Twenty-three BATCAM prototype systems have been deployed with special tactics teams who will recommend changes. Continuing aerodynamic, autopilot and payload refinement will improve system performance. A production version with stabilized night optics may have a wingspan of just 18 inches.

The BATCAM demonstration is managed by the AFRL Munitions Directorate, experts in lightweight, disposable avionics. However, the micro UAV is not a single-use item. “We kind of treat ourselves like we’re poor,” Crutchfield said. “We don’t know what the service life of these is going to be yet, but we’re going to get hundreds of flights on each one.”

Special Operations Forces Tactical Network (SOFTNET)

SOFTNET links all the pieces of the BAO kit in an ad hoc, self-forming, self-healing, wireless tactical communications network. Crutchfield noted that today’s short-range inter-team radios prevent a combat controller from talking to another team member at the other end of a 10,000-foot runway. SOFTNET uses each radio in the special tactics team as a relay node. “With an ad hoc network, it seamlessly flows through. I don’t know who it’s piping through, but he becomes a bridge in the network.”

SOFTNET provides line-of-sight communications, geolocation with map displays, and text links if talking is too dangerous. “It’s an add-on capability,” Crutchfield said. “It’s not just fixing the limitations of the range of small handheld radios.” With screen-writer capability, team members can share a map. SOFTNET will support simulcast video to share UAV imagery, and it enables the special tactics team to “gateway” target information through the PRC-117F tactical radio to the Global Information Grid. The PRC-117F radio will interface with current notebook and future wearable computers.

All of the SOFTNET equipment is cursor-on-target (CoT) compatible for interoperability with other stovepiped systems. The SOFTNET team working for the AFRL Munitions Directorate in collaboration with the Information Directorate and MITRE delivered its first prototype system in early July for special tactics teams to conduct their operational assessment.

Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided Knowledge (BATMAN)

The BATMAN team integrates all the ATD components while applying human effectiveness factors to the BAO kit system. The Human Effectiveness Directorate within AFRL has evaluated wearable computers, wearable displays, mission planning software, and TAC ear plugs with integrated microphones and speakers. It has also developed a Web-like special tactics reference guide and UAV checklist for the Toughbook computer to replace paper booklets.

BATMAN includes decision-aiding algorithms to help controllers under stress make the right decisions. Given a target close to friendly forces, the computer tells the controllers the attack is dangerously close and depicts the relative location of enemy and friendly forces. “When they’re tired and cold, the computer starts prompting them to think or gives them the answers to the problem,” Crutchfield explained. TACs will use cursor-on-target interfaces to simplify direct communications between machines.

Machine-to-Machine (M2M) Communications

Bridging the advanced technology demonstrations, M2M communications are expected to eliminate errors made by tired controllers under stress. They are also expected to shorten targeting timelines between ground controllers and aircrew. AFSOC believes making the ground-based and airborne machines speak the same language is important to eliminate traditional communications stovepipes.

The BAO kit uses AFRL-developed Bareback software as the CoT node to the Global Information Grid. CoT translates existing systems through the MITRE-developed extensible markup language (XML) schema. Over 68 proprietary data transfer systems are currently CoT/XML enabled. The common language provides the basis for a network-centric battlespace with a TAC out front.