DARPA looks at "system of systems" to maintain US air superiority

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Drones gather target data about a missile radar station while also jamming it, as part of a SoSITE system (Image: DARPA)

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Modern warfare is a constant arms race of measures and countermeasures, but with development cycles taking decades and costing billions of dollars, it's not uncommon for military technology to become obsolete by the time it's deployed. To address this dilemma, DARPA's System of Systems (SoS) Integration Technology and Experimentation (SoSITE) program aims at replacing monolithic weapon systems with a more flexible cross-platform approach.

Imagine a near-future conflict where a US fighter plane is approaching a hostile anti-aircraft missile unit. Instead of being part of a squadron of near-identical aircraft, the fighter is acting as a command and control platform followed by a transport plane acting as a weapons carrier, which can deploy recoverable drones and inexpensive munitions, such as simple cruise missiles.

As the fighter and transport approach the enemy defenses, the transport deploys recon drones equipped with jamming systems. These are commanded by the fighter pilot, but computers do the heavy lifting when it comes to controlling them. While the manned aircraft hang back, the drones locate the enemy radar unit, jam it, and send back images to the fighter of the target while filtering out irrelevant data.

At this point, the fighter's computer combines the drone data with its own and provides the pilot with a targeting solution. The pilot orders an attack and selected weapons are launched from the transport. These low-cost weapons are sent in a swarm and though most are destroyed by the enemy at great cost to the latter, enough get through to destroy the radar and open a hole in the defenses for the US forces to pass through.

This scenario is how DARPA sees future air wars involving the United States, but it's one that requires a different approach to weapons systems. Since the Second World War, US air defense has relied heavily on technological supremacy. This has paradoxically produced weaknesses as well as strengths, because replacing weapons systems is slow and expensive. The result is that armed forces must often use technology that is well behind that of the commercial sector or in too few numbers to be effective. This leaves gaps that a supposedly less advanced adversary can exploit with surprising ease.

To avoid a nightmare scenario like spending decades building an extremely expensive anti-missile system based around a bespoke computer only to have it made obsolete by someone with a smartphone, DARPA has initiated its SoSITE program.

Through contracts with Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Apogee Systems, BAE Systems, and Rockwell Collins, the agency is working to maintain air superiority through a new, more flexible approach to weapon systems by spreading capabilities across a number of manned and unmanned vehicles and weapons. The hope is that this will not only keep the US ahead, but also bring new capabilities online faster and cheaper.

According to DARPA, the goal of SoSITE is to enhance mission efficiency, decrease risk to US pilots, to inflict disproportionate costs on the enemy, and to force the enemy to expend expensive countermeasures against inexpensive unmanned attackers. This is done using an approach that is rapidly upgradeable, uses the latest technology and software, and is based on the idea of replacing only part of the system rather than the whole.

DARPA plans to achieve this by means of an open architecture approach that uses interchangeable modules and platforms. These include electronic warfare units, sensors, weapons, battle management systems, navigation, and communications as well as manned and unmanned aircraft.

The idea is to make different components, such as planes, missiles, and communications compatible, so only one bit needs replacing or upgrading rather than a whole system. In addition, combining existing platforms can quickly create a whole new system.

This new approach isn't easy. It means developing new standards for equipment, making sure that modules are interchangeable and backwards-compatible, protecting the systems from cyber attack, and applying this across the US armed services. DARPA says that by exploiting new miniaturization technology, new algorithms, and advanced materials, this should not only be possible, but provide more bang for the buck.

"The potential benefit of separating payloads from platforms using open system architectures can be understood using the example of smartphone technology and apps," says John Shaw, SoSITE program manager. "The ecosystem for smartphones invites new and better apps by shifting significant portions of the development burden onto well-defined development tool kits; these allow app developers to create new capabilities and get them quickly into an app store for consumers to use. You don’t need to buy a new smartphone every time an app comes out with a new capability. SoSITE’s technology integration focus area will build the 'under-the-hood' verification and cyber-defense capabilities so airborne platforms can host interchangeable 'app' functions."

The animation below shows a scenario based on the SoSITE approach.

Source: DARPA

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