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Watch how DARPA’s new close air support system works on an A-10 attack jet

DARPA's Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) prototype system integrates automated, digital, real-time coordination capability into a military aircraft system. (Video: DARPAtv via YouTube)

Modern ground combat is a mess of factors that result in an overwhelming amount of friction. People are trying to kill one another, communication can be near impossible and separating civilians from the enemy is a herculean task.

Above this chaos might be an aircraft, loaded wingtip to wingtip with thousands of pounds of bombs, waiting to relieve some of that friction on the ground. The act of coordinating this event is called Close Air Support (CAS). Pronounced “Kass,” it is difficult in even the most controlled situations.

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Enter the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and its prototype system called PCAS, or Persistent Close Air Support. It has now been installed and tested on the A-10C Thunderbolt II, the beloved but aging “Warthog” aircraft that has delivered close air support to ground troops in combat for a generation.

The video, posted by DARPA, spends two minutes showcasing the system’s integration with the A-10 during a test in May.

Close air support usually involves a pilot talking to troops on the ground through an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio connection on channels specified for CAS known as tactical air direction channels. While there are some variations of this, known as DCAS (Digital CAS), where troops on the ground have a video connection that allows them to see what the aircraft’s sensors see and call in strikes accordingly, DCAS suites are usually large and unwieldy in forward positions.

PCAS, however, looks to be a sweet spot for this type communication. Instead of large video systems, forward troops will have Android tablets, known as PCAS-Ground, that have real-time mapping software and information on the aircraft.

According to the video, the aircraft will have the same system known as PCAS-Air that can “plug and play” into almost any aircraft. The air and ground systems will thus communicate with one another and provide, what DARPA calls an “unprecedented synchronized understanding of the active battlefield.”

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From the video it looks like friendly unit location will be able to be marked and confirmed, attack headings for bomb runs can be verified and even ordnance release can be approved over the tablet.

While the Marines tested PCAS by calling in an airstrike from a MV-22 Osprey in March, the system’s integration with a fixed wing aircraft like the A-10 is a step forward for the program. CAS dynamics for fixed-wing jet aircraft like the A-10 are more complicated as the aircraft is usually moving much quicker and have to be de-conflicted differently than rotor wing aircraft like the MV-22.