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Distributed Battle Management: DARPA Seeks to Manage Increasingly Complex Contested Airspace

Anyone who has seen the 2005 movie Stealth has seen a vision of a unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) fighting against and alongside manned aircraft. Even if that vision was panned by critics, it’s a vision that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sees as worth investing in, according to a release from the agency.

“Advanced human-machine interaction technologies for cockpits and battle manager stations are also an area where we’re looking for novel approaches to enable greater comprehension and quick decision making in an increasingly contested and complex battlespace.”

On Feb. 21, DARPA issued a broad agency announcement (BAA) soliciting the first phase of a distributed battle management (DBM) program that would make use of automated aids to adapt to unique situations. “Advanced human-machine interaction technologies for cockpits and battle manager stations are also an area where we’re looking for novel approaches to enable greater comprehension and quick decision making in an increasingly contested and complex battlespace,” said Craig Lawrence, DARPA program manager. The DBM aims to provide a solution to the battle management challenges inherent when networks of manned and unmanned aircraft, weapons, sensors, and electronic warfare systems operate together satellite and tactical communications links.

MQ-9 Reaper

An MQ-9 Reaper slowly ascends above the flightline at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., April, 25, 2013. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly operating alongside manned aircraft, something that a distributed battle management (DBM) program would help coordinate. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrew Lee

Further complicating battle management is the potential use of cyber attacks in any future conflict. Many of the current battle management systems in use take effective communication for granted. No longer. “We’re looking for innovative algorithms from the planning and control theory communities that go beyond current algorithms, many of which assume assured communications in the tactical environment,” said Lawrence.

“We’re looking for innovative algorithms from the planning and control theory communities that go beyond current algorithms, many of which assume assured communications in the tactical environment.”

To illustrate the technical challenges that a projected DBM system would have to overcome, DARPA’s BAA included a scenario that involved a complex air battle between the U.S. and a near-peer competitor. In the scenario, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye; an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with an infra-red search and track (IRST) system; and two F-35 Lightning IIs are confronted with jamming that has rendered the E-2D’s radar inoperable. Tactical data links are also being jammed, along with the SATCOM that was enabling human control of the UAV.

Distributed Battle Management (DBM)

The scenario presented in DARPA’s Distributed Battle Management (DBM) BOA foresees the DBM developing decision aids for airborne battle managers and pilots in tactical aircraft, as well as autonomy for unmanned systems, in order to manage complex kill chains for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions in a contested environment. DARPA illustration

In this scenario, any DBM would need to aid the UAV by positioning it in communications range, yet out of danger of hostile fighters. The DBM algorithms would allow the UAV to autonomously remain in orbit, while responding to approaching targets. The scenario also supposes that two enemy fighters are detected inbound by the UAV. In that case, the E-2D’s DBM would fuse the data from the UAV’s IRST in order to geolocate, identify, and track the targets. The battle manager would then select a combination of aircraft and weapons from among the aircraft available, based on the DBM’s decision aid. The decision aid would lay out options and assessments of which combinations would have the highest likelihood of success, risk, and effects on the mission.

The battle manager would then select a combination of aircraft and weapons from among the aircraft available, based on the DBM’s decision aid. The decision aid would lay out options and assessments of which combinations would have the highest likelihood of success, risk, and effects on the mission.

This scenario envisions the DBM selecting a two-ship formation of F-35s for engagement with the enemy fighters. The DBM decision aids on the F-35s would then help the pilots by maintaining a common operational picture, acquiring and identifying the target, launching the weapons, and assessing the engagement. In this imagined engagement, the DBM recommends an integrated fire control solution in order to increase the survivability of the F-35s and the probability of a kill for the weapons. The DBM would be capable of executing a “forward pass,” where one of the F-35s releases a weapon and the other F-35 takes over the engagement control of that weapon.

F-35 Lightning II

A pair of F-35A Lightning IIs from the 33rd Fighter Wing streaks across the sky above Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., while coming in for a landing after a training sortie, April 3, 2013. DARPA envisions the distributed battle management (DBM) system helping F-35 pilots execute “forward passes,” where one F-35 would launch a missile and another F-35 would take over the engagement control of that missile. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

This relatively simple scenario, out of thousands of potential scenarios, has the DBM operating at three levels. It supported the decision making and situational awareness of the E-2D, UAV, and F-35s. Multiple systems were managed in real time. When you consider that this scenario involved only six aircraft and imagine a situation where hundreds of aircraft, from enemies to allies, are in the area, you get a sense of the complexity that DARPA wants any DBM to be ready to tackle.

This relatively simple scenario, out of thousands of potential scenarios, has the DBM operating at three levels. It supported the decision making and situational awareness of the E-2D, UAV, and F-35s. Multiple systems were managed in real time.

Two phases are planned by DARPA to facilitate the development of control algorithms and decision-aid software for tactical battle management. Phase one will focus on technology development with planning, control, and situation understanding algorithms, the design of appropriate human-machine interfaces, and systems engineering. Phase two will see the building of an integrated DBM capability for the managing of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat in contested environments. The DBM will then be tested in a large-scale simulation and live fly event.

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Steven Hoarn is the Editor/Photo Editor for Defense Media Network. He is a graduate of...