Calling in the cavalry

This new system speeds close air support to soldiers on the ground

In a firefight, seconds matter.

That is especially true when it comes to calling in back-up in a tough situation. Raytheon Technologies and military researchers are bringing to the field an advanced system that would bring air support faster than ever to troops on the battlefield. The system provides real-time information sharing, quick response and precise targeting.

It's called Persistent Close Air Support, and it connects ground-based Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, often embedded with special operations units, with overhead aircraft to coordinate friendly-force identification, target correlation and to spot hostile forces with pinpoint precision.

“By getting information to our aircrews faster, PCAS reduces battlefield risks and fratricide,” said Ryan McLean, Raytheon Technologies PCAS program manager.

A PCAS-enabled soldier can call in air support for multiple targets, from manned or unmanned platforms, in less than six minutes. Current close-air-support missions often need upward of 30 minutes for coordination, and multiple-target attacks can be even more complex to plan.

“When ground forces have identified the target location or are pinned down and in need of support from the air, they should not be dependent on paper maps and voice communications to convey critical information to aircrews,” said McLean.

The PCAS network shares all-digital situational awareness between the pilot, the attack controller and other soldiers through tablets running the military’s Tactical Assault Kit software. PCAS algorithms on the aircraft help to pinpoint targets, map attack routes, and employ the right weapon at the right time for a specific target.

PCAS was developed through Agile and DevOps software methodologies and tools. These Silicon Valley-style approaches speed the development and evolution of advanced technologies.

“We no longer need to sit on a solution like we did with the traditional acquisition process, which at best took months or years to complete,” said McLean. “Because we employ test-driven development and various forms of automated testing on every feature, bugs and other costly rework are minimal.”

DevOps software development allows the team to field new capabilities more quickly and in close coordination with the military “to find out who our users are, what they need, and why they need it,” McLean said.

“Every month, we are back with the customer demonstrating new capabilities on the actual aircraft and turning around iterative, usable software updates,” he said. “For example, we recently gave the customer the ability to remote-control one of the sensors.”

The use of commercial-style open standards allows mission systems to plug into virtually any platform. As users demand a new capability or when interfaces change on the aircraft, product managers and designers can turn around field-ready updates in as little as two weeks.

Coordinating with the military “results in less rework,” said Phillip Bies, Raytheon Technologies PCAS chief engineer.

One of the DevOps techniques the company uses is pair programming, in which two programmers work together at one workstation. Through its all-cloud-based development environment, the PCAS team is able to quickly bring on new members, share knowledge, break down knowledge silos and provide continuous peer review.

In July, the Pentagon drafted new policy that incorporates commercial software practices and emphasizes the involvement of the "end user," or the operators who will eventually use the tools and tech that's under development.

“The battlefield changes quickly, and that pace will only accelerate,” said McLean.