Precision without precedent

Tech can help USAF pilots in mountain, desert expeditionary ops

The same technology that guides aviators onto the decks of aircraft carriers in roiling seas can help U.S. Air Force pilots on austere runways in remote regions of the world.

It's called the Expeditionary Joint Precision Approach and Landing System, or Expeditionary JPALS for short.

“If a disaster were to strike in an isolated area with little infrastructure and just a dirt runway, the Air Force, using Expeditionary JPALS, could rapidly be on the ground, providing humanitarian relief within an hour of arrival,” said retired Air Force Col. JW Watkins, a former fighter pilot now with Raytheon Technologies business development. “This capability can help provide emergency relief in the aftermath of a disastrous event, getting people food, water, shelter and medicine to those who need it.”

JPALS is a differential, GPS-based, precision landing system that currently guides aircraft onto carriers and amphibious assault ships in all kinds of weather and surface conditions, up to the rough waters of Sea State 5. It uses an encrypted, jam-proof data link, connecting to software on the aircraft's mission computer and an array of GPS sensors, mast-mounted antennas and rack-mounted shipboard avionics.

Raytheon Technologies has developed an expeditionary version of the system that can be packaged in ruggedized cases and air-dropped or mounted on a small vehicle and driven into austere, remote locations.

“The need for precision landings in harsh environments isn’t limited to one military service and one airplane,” said Matt Gilligan, a vice president with Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business. “JPALS can help any fixed or rotary-wing aircraft land in harsh, low-visibility environments.”

The Air Force and other services could deploy Expeditionary JPALS to a remote location to support contingency operations, such as countering a new threat or helping an aircraft provide humanitarian relief. This version of the system could simultaneously control up to 50 airplanes out to a radius of 20 nautical miles.

In the past, the Air Force has staged aircraft on large, main operating bases in well-known locations across the globe. As the threat from missiles has grown, those bases have become more vulnerable. The reaction from the Air Force is to look toward dispersed operations and adaptive basing strategies that use austere airfields in lesser-known locations. Expeditionary JPALS, mobile and flexible, could help.

The demonstration expeditionary system consists of five transit cases that can be repackaged for small, transit vehicles that are transportable by C-130 or can be slung under a heavy-lift, transport helicopter. The final configuration can be whatever the services require. The system is mobile, has a small footprint and can be setup in 60 to 90 minutes.

“Not all approaches are simple, straight-in approaches where you drive a single heading into an airfield and land," Watkins said. “Sometimes, based on the terrain, like mountains, you're going to need to fly a curved approach or a multi-segmented approach... JPALS allows you to do that."

JPALS will allow commanders to quietly send in a contingency response group to help set up a bare-bones base, with advance troops, air traffic controllers and critical personal and equipment, according to Watkins. And unlike traditional, radar-based landing systems, JPALS doesn't emit a radar signal, allowing for much improved location security. JPALS can even help Air Force pilots land in zero/zero conditions — zero visibility, zero ceiling.

“JPALS has the potential of ensuring a pilot’s safety in places where radars find it difficult to operate,” said Michelle Patrick, Raytheon Intelligence & Space director of navigation and landing systems, “like highly mountainous terrain or desert sandstorms."