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The future of air warfare is likely to be characterised by increased congestion, with large numbers of manned and unmanned aircraft and munitions filling the skies. Deconfliction of friendly air movements and the ability to rapidly counter hostile ones will require new technologies, to enable commanders to effectively integrate effects from multiple domains.

To that end, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced its Air Space Total Awareness for Rapid Tactical Execution (ASTARTE) programme, which it is conducting in partnership with the Army and Air Force. The goal is to enable efficient, effective airspace operations and de-confliction in a highly congested future battlespace. This capability is especially critical for implementing DARPA’s ‘Mosaic Warfare’ concept, which calls for seamless coordination across a complex web of aerial, ground and sea nodes, providing firepower and other effects to overwhelm an adversary.

“ASTARTE aims to provide a real-time, common operational picture of the dynamic airspace in the most complex and challenging adversary anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, environments,” commented Paul Zablocky, Program Manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office. “We want to provide a more accurate and timely picture of the airspace that will allow for long-range fire missions as well as manned and unmanned aircraft operations to occur simultaneously and more safely in the same airspace.”

ASTARTE will focus on the most challenging airspace problem – the airspace above an Army Division operating under an enemy’s A2/AD bubble. This volume of airspace can contain Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Special Operations Forces, coalition and adversary manned/unmanned aircraft and munitions. This effort was briefed to leaders in both the Army and Air Force and has received support throughout. As the military services wrestle with integration and future conflicts, ASTARTE complements recent Joint Staff and service-level experiments designed to address these issues and complements new warfighting concepts being developed across DoD to support Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) operations.

Current airspace planning and control is a largely manual process with fairly static air corridors, lanes and zones established for de-confliction that don’t allow for rapid re-tasking of air assets in a fast-paced environment […] The way we coordinate between joint fires and airspace users today is slow and inexact, requiring verbal coordination, which often gives an adversary time to fire and maneuver unchallenged,” Zablocky added.

ASTARTE will not only provide a continuously updating, real-time, four-dimensional (space and time) moving picture of the battlespace for friendly forces, but will also use its sensor network to detect and map adversary locations, increasing situational awareness within A2/AD environments. Unlike previous attempts to create a dynamic airspace common operating picture, ASTARTE does not seek to develop a common framework of software and hardware that coalition partners would have to acquire. The new ASTARTE ‘engine’ or ‘brain’ will be designed for compatibility with existing and future C2 systems used by the services and will automatically push the most current and relevant airspace information to all joint units on their native C2 systems.

To achieve its objectives, ASTARTE is focused on three technical areas:

  • Development of algorithms for understanding and decision-making that can predict airspace usage conflicts, propose de-confliction solutions (with associated risk levels) and direct sensors in the ASTARTE network to maintain the necessary airspace picture at any given moment in time. These algorithms would be usable from any C2 system;
  • Sensors – development or leverage of existing low-cost sensors to detect and track manned and unmanned aircraft, airborne weapons and other potential flight safety hazards, such as unmanned balloons, in an A2/AD setting and in real time;
  • Development of a virtual laboratory testbed to allow for modelling, simulation and virtual experiment, using a combination of current C2 systems and ASTARTE technology.

“This is an excellent opportunity for proposers to create diverse teams built with academic partners and other traditional/non-traditional DoD partners with highly specialized technical expertise,” Zablocky explained. “There are numerous civilian and commercial technologies such as gaming, virtualization and artificial intelligence that could also provide unique insights and capabilities to a defense contractor team proposing to this effort.”

ASTARTE will improve awareness, decision-making and thus combat effectiveness in the future battlespace. (Image: DARPA)

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