Raytheon [RTN] is beginning the 18-month, $25.5 million Phase 3 under an option exercised by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program.

The third phase of the PCAS program is to run from January 2014 through mid-2014 and is scheduled to culminate in a series of flight tests and live-fire demonstrations.

Image: DARPA

PCAS software could enable ground troops to receive close air support sooner by improving coordination among joint terminal attack controllers, airborne sensors and weapons.

PCAS is designed to improve human-machine interfaces for both ground and air personnel by inserting autonomous algorithms in the decision chain, and digitally sending shared situational awareness messages.

CAS has changed little since World War I, DARPA explains on its PCAS program page, and it can take as long as an hour for ground and air fire coordination to discuss the situation, get in position and strike, all while mobile targets have the opportunity to flee or hide.

The program, originally designed for the A-10 Thunderbolt, was expanded in 2013 to develop a platform- and sensor-agnostic electronics suite that could be easily integrated onto multiple platforms. The system is also designed to work with a variety of legacy radios to facilitate transition to multiple users.

What DARPA seeks is to increase CAS effectiveness by allowing those on the ground–the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) and combat aircrews–to share real-time situational awareness and weapons systems data. Such a system could allow swift and positive identification of multiple targets simultaneously. Then the two groups could jointly select precision guided weapons that are optimal for each target and minimize other damage and friendly fire.

DARPA envisions benefits to include, for example, reducing the time from calling a strike to the weapon hitting the target from an hour to six minutes.

PCAS designs have two main components at this point: PCAS-Air and PCAS-Ground, the program said. From December 2012 through March 2013, DARPA deployed 500 Android tablets equipped with PCAS-Ground situational awareness software to units stationed in Afghanistan. Reports from the field informed DARPA that PCAS-Ground replaced those units’ legacy paper maps, ”dramatically” improving ground forces’ ability to quickly and safely coordinate air engagements.

“Our ground troops deserve the quickest response possible when close air support is needed,” said Thomas Bussing, vice president of Raytheon Missile Systems’ Advanced Missile Systems product line. “Raytheon’s PCAS solution is designed to reduce the minutes it takes to deliver that critical support, and give warfighters the most effective protection possible.”

Phase 3 was awarded in the third quarter of 2013. Raytheon is the systems integrator for PCAS and leads an industry team comprised of Rockwell Collins [COL], General Electric [GE], BAE Systems and 5-D Systems. Raytheon brings its expertise in overall systems integration, weapons, aircraft integration and unmanned aircraft system ground control stations to PCAS.