DARPA needs drones, fighters, missiles to attack in tandem; wants open systems to make it happen

DARPA's weapons-system mix-and-match plan called SoSITE.
Credit: DARPA, DoD

Pentagon researchers have decided the most effective way to penetrate state-of-the-art air defenses is the same approach with which users have flummoxed large-scale IT security operations for years:

Open-source, plug-and-play interfaces that allow intruders to assemble a mix of components so unpredictable it is impossible to defend against all the thousands of unique possible combinations, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

So – under a new approach called the System of Systems (SoS) Integration Technology and Experimentation (SoSITE) – DARPA is looking for ways to make sure U.S. attacks remain unstoppable by mixing and matching drones, fighters, cruise missiles, smart bombs, electronic warfare and other systems into unpredictable combinations whose combined capabilities make the combination unstoppable even if each individual system involved in it is not.

Prototypical U.S. tech-dependent air-superiority attacks currently depend on super-advanced, radar-evading fighters that go in ahead of the rest of a strike force to destroy an enemy's stationary radar systems and stay in the area to attack any mobile anti-aircraft missile-systems radar that light up when the main body of attackers arrives.

DARPA SoSITE drones relay location of anti-aircraft missile battery. DARPA, DoD

DARPA SoSITE drones relay location of anti-aircraft missile battery.

A prototypical attack under SoSITE (highlighted in a video posted along with DARPA's announcement of the program) would use several different types of aircraft to attack radar systems. Using radar-detection and far more advanced communications systems than they have now, for example, cruise missiles sent in to blow up stationary radar installations could fly through mountain valleys likely to hide mobile radar systems. When those light up to try to bring down the cruise missiles, the missiles could detect their locations and radio the information back to a wave of fighters sent to knock them out.

Rather than use cruise missiles that cost north of $1.4 million apiece, an attack could start with a wave of comparatively cheap drones launched from a bomber or cargo plane to serve as bait for mobile radar systems. When they're detected, signals from several drones could triangulate the positions of mobile radar precisely enough that smart bombs or medium-range missiles dropped from a cargo plane or from attack drones could zip in to destroy radar systems, leaving the advanced fighters that led the attack to simply hang around guarding the suddenly lethal cargo jets.

Cargo planes could also drop waves of drones with electronic-warfare capabilities to jam enemy radar without destroying it, park undetectably in strategic locations and send back real-time video of key targets, act as communications-relay stations for other drones assisting in the attack, or do almost anything else that's needed, depending on the size and type of payload they're able to carry.

Full-sized drones like Predator or Global Hawk can carry large missiles like the 100lb, $115,000 Hellfire, which were designed to be carried by fighters or attack helicopters.

Smaller drones might carry smaller, smarter missiles like the helicopter-mounted 2.75-inch-diameter, laser-guided, $10,000 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System . They might also carry the "smallest guided missile in the world," the comparatively dinky, 5.5lb, 25-inch-long, camera-guided missile Spike, which was developed as a training project by in-house engineers at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) at China Lake, Calif., which cost $50,000 to prototype but could cost one-tenth that amount in full production.

"Weapons systems are really, really expensive…so we're taking an alternative [path]… using commercial technology we can keep the cost per unit down really low," Spike project lead Greg Wheelock told the NavyTimes in February 2014.

That echoes at least part of the SoSITE assumption that many relatively cheap, smart weapons systems can be more effective in combination than one big, honking, expensive system that takes a decade to develop.

The key is separating payloads like explosives, electronic-warfare pods, navigation or communication systems from the planes, drones, helicopters or smart-nav bombing systems that carry them, according to DARPA.

Just as it's not necessary to buy a new smartphone just to get the functions of an app that's just been released, it shouldn't be necessary to build a whole new aircraft to act as delivery system to a new electronic-warfare system, for example, according to SoSITE project manager John Shaw, who was quoted in DARPA's release last night.

"If we are successful, the Services will be able to add or swap out capabilities across existing manned and unmanned platforms at lower cost and in shorter time. The goal is to plug modules that perform different airborne functions into any type of airborne platform and have them work seamlessly," Shaw said.

The idea is only one of a host of DARPA projects designed to add low-cost but effective capabilities to U.S. weapons systems, including one to develop drone ships to continuously patrol for subs or small boats that might attack U.S. Navy ships. Another would Navy ships launch squadrons of medium-range surveillance or attack drones that would give comparatively cheap, maneuverable ships abilities similar to hideously expensive, vulnerable aircraft carriers.

The SoSITE open-systems approach is just starting, and DARPA has a long way to go to both convince the Services of its value and to build the open-systems architectures that would make it possible to launch missions using mix-and-match combinations of missiles, drones, fighters, bombers and cargo planes. They also have a long way to go to make sure those frameworks are secure against an enemy's version of the electronic warfare systems some of those aircraft would carry.

SoSITE is also an interim step between the systems the U.S. military uses now and the super-futuristic, modular, easily upgradeable, robot-powered, cyber-war-dominating, chameleonlike smart-materials-dependent miracles DARPA sees as the future of global security and mayhem creation for the distant future of 2020 and beyond.

"SoSITE aims to demonstrate that a [system-of-systems] approach to maintaining air superiority will be militarily effective [and] can adapt apace with the emergence of new technologies," Shaw wrote in the SoSITE summary page. SoSITE will also turn the tables "and will impose on any adversary seeking to counter these systems a financial cost greater than it costs the United States to field."

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