Up in the Air or Down on the Ground
The US Air Force is upgrading its equipment for Battlefield Airmen to enhance their situational awareness and other capabilities
Assumptions that soldier modernisation is exclusively a Soldier or Marine activity are misplaced. The United States Air Force (USAF) also has interests in this domain, being pursued by the Battlefield Airmen Program Office based at Wright-Patterson AFB, which was stood up in 2005 is response to an incident in Afghanistan in 2001 where Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) operators inadvertently called in an air strike on their own position.
Lt. Joe Grunwaldt, USAF, Program Manager Power Generation and Management at the Battlefield Airmen Program Office, outlined the Program Office’s core role, “We are directed to treat the operator as a weapon system and we are constantly trying to enhance their equipment.”
The term Battlefield Airman covers several areas; the Guardian Angel Weapon System (GAWS) which comprises the Combat Rescue Officer (CRO), Pararescue (PJ), and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) Specialists; Battlefield Air Operations (BAO) Kit; CCT, STO, TACP teams and Battlefield Weathermen.
With a 12 man office, the team is issuing ten Request For Proposals (RFP) this year. On the face of it being something of a logistical and management challenge. Lt. Grunwaldt explained the challenge has been lessened, “The whole kit has achieved Milestone C as a weapons system so each enhancement that is done after that is treated as another project under that umbrella. We have an Annual Execution Agreement with AFSOC where they spell out what their priorities are for that year, how they want funds spent, and what capabilities they want us to go after. Since we started we have been the systems integrator on the whole kit.”
Lt Grunwaldt acknowledges that this task is becoming more complex as integration issues arise as the systems develop and mature, “As we started to put more and more technology into it and you have to make sure that you can operate with all the legacy equipment. We never had the money for a prime integrator; and it was always too expensive. This has turned out to be a real positive for us because it forces us to be hands on and know all our equipment in and out.
We use incremental development to make improvements to the kit. Every few years the equipment is looked at and they decide what they want to replace, what needs to go, what new capabilities we want to bring in.”
Battlefield Air Operations
The BAO Kit strategy is based on incremental development; Increment I which was Baseline configuration that standardised all BAO Kit and covered the period 2003-2011; Increment II covering Enhancements and increased capability and the future Increment III dealing with Continuing enhancements. Its remit covers a Helmet Mounted Display, Beyond Line of Sight Sensor (BLOS) mounted on a Small unmanned aerial Vehicle (SUAV), Tactical Earpiece, Small Wearable Computer and power generation and management system with a technology refresh now underway.
The USAF’s remit for the BAO kit is very similar to a typical soldier system being pursued by ground forces:
- A human system that is composed of a family of sub-systems that increases precision and speed of effects delivery
- Significantly reduces weight carried by the operator
- Increases precision lethality in combat arena
- Provides superior C2 for dismounted operations
The impact of the approach has brought considerable dividends, not least in weight reduction. The complete BAO kit in 2003 weighed 80lbs, the replacement Increment 1 systems weighed 60lbs and consisted of three main Capability Development Document outputs: Human Machine Interface, Integrated Targeting Device and BATCAM (Battlefield Air Targeting Camera Autonomous Micro-Air Vehicle) with the Increment 2 systems which began in 2011 and will endure until 2015.
For the BAO, Situational Awareness begins with being able to communicate with pilots supporting friendly ground forces. Three radios are used; the Harris RF Communications AN/PRC-152 and -117G radio and the Raytheon MicroLight radio which supports the EPLRS based Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL). Work is on going with the Harris radios on waveform upgrades and hardware/software improvements as well as Iridium waveform development with a demonstration scheduled for July 2012.
Lt. Grunwaldt commented, “The biggest problem is that coalition aircraft are not standardised in the way they communicate data. You have different aircraft that you need to deal with and you never know who is going to show up, you might have a USAF A-10 using SADL and your MicroLight. The next time you might have a pilot from Belgium in an F-16 that you can’t communicate so well with on a data network.”
Digital Close Air Support (CAS) is something the USAF is working on for the future. Lt. Grunwaldt said, “It can be a lot faster, is a lot more precise, and you are less likely to make a mistake. We are really talking digitally aided CAS. Someday it could be done totally digitally but the operators and pilots are very reluctant to not have that final, cleared hot call done by voice. They really want the extra assurance at the end to be sure they are both on the same page.”
A key feature of the current BAO kit is the Small Wearable Computer, currently the General Dynamics MR1 which has been fielded from 2007. An RFP for a new computer is planned for FY2012. Lt. Grunwaldt commented, “As far as how good a computer works, it usually comes down to what software you have got on it. Every year we field a whole refresh on our software. It has got about 70+ apps on it including for integrating chatting, a Wiki page for questions, nine line formats. We need to do a better job on software integration. We have a lot of gifted engineers both government and contractors that work on this and sometimes in the spirit of trying to give as much technology and options as possible, they are making it more complex than it needs to be.”
The Program Office’s goal; is to have a Google like system – with users selecting and finding the app they need the same way anyone uses Google today – without training, understanding it intuitively. A suite of map centric software applications in a kit is being developed. The newest version of the Ghost software is currently in development and includes migration to replacement SWC and the Windows 7 OS.
According to Lt Grunwaldt it is not realistic to be looking at your computer constantly on the battlefield. This issue is being addressed via the use of an HMD (Helmet Mounted Display) deployed with Increment 1.
Lt. Grunwaldt commented, “As they are doing everything on the battlefield, they would glance up on it and check to see if there was anything important, then they could change their focus very quickly for good situational awareness. In 2009, we wrote requirements that in three years, we would be able to get to a see through display with icons layered on what the operators are seeing real time. Even though you can build a see-through display right now, the technology is not ready for a head tracker and GPS device on the operators head in the field. The programme has been pushed to FY2013.” In Increment II 734 HMDs will be completed by FY2015.
A Tactical Acoustic Headset has also been fielded, being able to connect with up to three radios simultaneously. Some of the operators told us that they are using three radios at one time and for better SA they needed to know who was talking to them and on what radio more quickly. Building on this we wanted to build 3D audio, and the next Increment may have this capability.
For the BLOS requirement, a total of 188 Wasp 3 systems have been acquired with the BAO Kit users now moving to the Wasp 4 All Environment (SUAV). Lt. Grunwaldt said, “There are a couple of reasons to going to Wasp 4 as it has a longer endurance, it will stay up for 60 minutes and the All Environment is better in heavy winds and rain than the Wasp 3.
The USAF is taking the concept of Small UAV to enable BLOS targeting, “Say you are flying it around and you go around the mountain and you see enemy forces coming your way. What can you do about it? We want to get the sensor on them to be able to pinpoint the coordinates to call an air strike on them. You have to be able to rely on that information and be able to send it up to a pilot and have him check it out.”
For Line of Sight-Short (LOS-S) targeting there are currently three separate devices, which will be replaced with a 3-in-1 Lightweight Integrated Targeting Device (ITD). Lt Grunwaldt said, “There will be an RFP going out for a refresh on this capability. We want to combine those three functions into one device and go from 35lbs of legacy equipment to under 10lbs is the goal. It is a great SA tool and if you can combine all three in one and hook it up with your computer it makes digitally aided CAS possible and we move forward.” The proposed LOS-S solution will reduce weight from today’s 35lbs to just under 8lbs.
Other ongoing work for the BAO includes a conformal battery. A total of 30 prototype batteries were delivered in February 2012 for user evaluation and life cycle testing. Of these; 15 will be used for early testing and as physical models for integration prototypes of the future BAO kit. The remaining 15 will be sent for user evaluation and form fit factor checking.
Lt. Grunwaldt explained, “There is also an AN/PRC-152 battery integration deal that is ongoing. We are just looking at how to extend the mission length of our AN/PRC-152 radio to a 72 hour mission without having to pack the extra batteries so if we can somehow incorporate them into our main power supply (a larger power supply) and keep recharging that battery, instead of just changing them out. We also have the same problems as anyone else with cables. We have to manage all the cables without it looking like a box full of junk. We are going to put out an RFP to take all the equipment that we have with all the cables, and deign a vest that will integrate all this into one system. To create more of a plug and play environment and not having to worry about routing cables each time.”