With multiple countries investing in technology to proliferate the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), develop aerial swarms, bolster their missile arsenals, DARPA is looking for ways to give a seamless real-time operational picture of the airspace above a conflict zone.

Under the Air Space Total Awareness for Rapid Tactical Execution (ASTARTE) programme, the agency wants to de-conflict airspace activities of friendly forces and rapidly counter enemy actions on the battlefield, which requires new technologies to effectively integrate effects from all domains.

In partnership with the US Army and Air Force, ASTARTE’s goal is to enable efficient and effective airspace operations and de-confliction in a highly congested future battlespace and fits into wider DARPA goal to create a seamless connection between air, sea and ground units.

DARPA Strategic Technology Office programme manager Paul Zablocky said: “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.

“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.”

To this end, DARPA is holding a proposers’ day in late April to consult industry proposals and shed more light on their plans for the programme. The agency’s BAA details a proposed timeline for the development of ASTARTE, beginning with the BAA this year, and ending with the final capstone demonstration and transition in Q3 of 2024. Work on the programme is set to begin in earnest in 2021 with the development of sensors, algorithms, and virtual labs as the projects phase 1.

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DARPA said ASTARTE will address the most challenging airspace problem, that of operating under a potential enemies anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) bubble. According to the agency before embarking on the project the idea was briefed to service leaders across the US Army and Air Force were it earned their support.

ASTARTE is seen as being able to plug in and support Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) operations and wider pushes for further integration between the different branches of the US military in development at the Department of Defence (DoD).

In future, the complexity of the A2/AD space will expand as loitering munitions, aircraft, UAS and long-range fires are developed further. This, alongside ground units, personnel and of both the US forces and its adversaries, will make understanding what is happening increasingly harder under conventional ways of understanding the operational picture of a battlefield. For ASTARTE, DARPA is

focusing on a 100 km by 100 km area above an army division that extends from the ground up to 18,000 feet.

Zablocky said: “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 manoeuvre unchallenged.”

Documents from DARPA explain the full scope of ASTARTE saying: “Air Space Total Awareness for Rapid Tactical Execution (ASTARTE) programme seeks to provide real-time, low-risk joint deconfliction between airspace users and joint fires at an Army Division-level to enable responsive support to tactical units and build a resilient air picture in an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment while conducting Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) operations.”

ASTARTE will develop a virtual and live testbed for airspace management systems, a series of algorithms for airspace planning and operations, and a sensor network for delivering real-time spatial and temporal tracking of airborne platforms.

Taken together, the different aspects of ASTARTE will complete sensor tasking, processing of information and then disseminate across the battlespace in near real-time to where the information is needed. Interested parties are being asked by DARPA to propose solutions that encompass three different technical requirements detailed by the agency.

DARPA’s technical requirements are to create algorithms that can understand what is happening in the airspace and make decisions by proposing deconfliction solutions, to create sensors – ideally low-cost – that can track everything from aircraft to unmanned systems and balloons, and finally to create a virtual lab testbed to model and simulate the developments.

In its programme overview, DARPA wrote: “ASTARTE will provide a more accurate, timely picture of the airspace, allowing simultaneous and dynamic long-range fire missions, manned and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to operate within the same airspace in a safe and efficient manner.

“It will interoperate and coordinate with existing C2 systems to ensure airspace users and operators have the most current and relevant information available. ASTARTE will not only provide a continuously updating, real-time four-dimensional (space and time) moving picture of the battlespace for blue forces but will also use its sensor network to detect and map adversary airspace use, increasing situational awareness within A2/AD environments.”

DARPA is particularly interested in how non-traditional defence contractors and technology from civilian sectors can be adapted to help visualise such a complex area of airspace, with Zablocky saying commercial technologies such as gaming, virtualisation, and artificial intelligence (AI) could provide new insight into solving the airspace problem.

Image: DARPA.

The Mosaic Warfare Concept

First detailed in 2018, DARPA’s Mosaic Warfare concept envisages a battlespace of tiles where individual platforms are pieced together and connected to overwhelm an enemy force.

Unlike the current approach which a DARPA presentation described as a puzzle, with equipment engineered to work and be assembled in one way, the Mosaic Warfare approach is to take pieces designed for interoperability and assemble them in the best way to the face the threat. This concept is designed to leverage the complexity of US forces and turn it into an advantage.

ASTARTE fits into this as it will fill one gap in the seamless coordination process, providing a clear picture of airspace that can then be fed across to different areas of operation where needed.

DARPA said: “This capability [filled by ASTARTE] 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.”