Possibly the most “popular” new capability featured on the highly controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the aircraft’s Distributed Aperture System, otherwise known as “DAS” for short. DAS is a unique system that pairs an array of cameras installed around a vehicle that each stare in separate directions. Then a powerful computer processor “stitches” these images together to create a continuous viewable video “sphere.” When the DAS system is paired with a helmet mounted display that is slaved to a spacial tracking system, the person wearing the helmet can look around and virtually “see” the environment around them, even in total darkness and, in some cases, otherwise blinding weather conditions. Because the cameras are mounted around the outside of the vehicle, and the user is seated inside of the vehicle while wearing a helmet mounted display with the DAS’s imagery being projected inside of it, the user can virtually “see through” the vehicle’s interior structures as if they were never there in the first place. As we have discussed at great length before, DAS is pretty cool stuff that has massive implications for the future of air combat, but it also looks like it will soon be migrating from the air to the sea, where it may find an even more welcoming and lucrative customer base…
Distributed Aperture technology does not only provide synthetic vision, when paired with high-speed computers loaded with the latest in image recognition and object tracking software, the system can provide missile launch detection, ground target tracking and recognition, infra-red search and track, and even ballistic missile tracking capabilities. Simply put, the system is very smart and very sensitive, and will only become more so as time goes on. In air combat, a pilot flying an aircraft with DAS installed will always know where the enemy is during a close in dogfight as the enemy aircraft cannot escape DAS’s panoptic point of view and tracking software. The system really works as a smart optical search and tracker at longer ranges and as a virtual “backseater” born with x-ray vision during close range combat. A much more capable but less affable “Goose” if you will.
DAS is also totally integrated with other sensors, so that if the F-35’s super-capable APG-81 AESA radar detects something of interest, DAS’s software will closely analyze that location in space to see if it can “add” to the pilot’s situational awareness and the quality of potential targeting data. DAS and the F-35’s Electro-Optical Targeting System EOTS, basically a internal SNIPER XR targeting pod mounted under faceted windows below the F-35’s nose, also work closely together. When it comes to long-range targets, the aircraft’s radar may detect a possible contact, and the powerful telescopic vision of the EOTS will attempt lock onto it and relay its imagery to the pilot. As the target comes within the viewing range of DAS the system will seamlessly “hand the contact off” if commanded to do so, thus freeing up the more powerful but cycloptic EOTS for other tasks. In this manner the system also offers some redundancy against electronic countermeasures and jamming, as optical systems are not susceptible to these types of tactics. The integrated nature of the F-35’s sensor suite, including its radar, EOTS, DAS, data-link and sensitive radar warning receiver, also allow for the F-35 to go “electromagnetic silent” once a target is detected at long range, and tracked by passive sensors (everything but radar really). This allows for the F-35 to maneuver tactically without being detected by continuously “spiking” the enemy aircraft with its radar system.
DAS, especially when integrated with a variety of other passive and active sensors, offers an extremely elevated form of situational awareness, as well as targeting quality tracking data and automatic contact recognition. With this in mind, the creative folks over at Northrop Grumman have adapted DAS for service at sea, in a system ominously named “Silent Watch.” Simply put, this system makes sense, not just for US Navy destroyers or Littoral Combat Ships who live under the constant threat of everything from cruise missile attacks to swarms of high-speed enemy cigarette boats, but also for the civilian market. When a super wealthy individual blows $100M on a super yacht, hires a team of ex-special forces to guard their “steel island,” and blows millions more on choppers, tenders, and mini-subs to play with, installing Silent Watch on their ship just makes sense and would seemingly be the very least of their budgetary concerns. This is especially true considering that many of the folks who own such large pleasure boats are usually security conscious and under some type of persistent security threat themselves.
Silent Watch, which has already been tested aboard Northrop Grumman’s test yacht the “Sperry Star III,” is also a relevant for large commercial ships that have to sail into regions that have issues with piracy and terrorism. In fact, even for ships that do not sail in high risk areas, the situational awareness enhancement gained by Silent Watch may be worth the investment for navigation purposes alone, especially considering that crew sizes continue to shrink on commercial ships. Silent Watch could even potentially detect, and immediately track a man overboard, a capability that has never been fielded to this very day. The ability to have a system that could do all these things and literally alert the crew when an object is on a collision course with, or in its vicinity of, their ship could be worth its cost in saved manpower and averted disasters alone. Even while docked in port, a time when a ship is idle and its manpower is at its lowest magnitude, while vulnerability to attack it at its highest potential, Silent Watch could keep an eye on the ship’s surrounding with minimal manpower requirements and machine-like efficiency.
It is great to see DAS migrate its way off the F-35 even before its first host aircraft is fielded. This type of capability, and its Orwellian mega-scale cousin named WAAS, have the ability to literally change the way we interact and observe our environment. As bandwidth evolves, and more data can be piped quickly over long distances, “unmanned aircraft” may become “virtually manned” aircraft when the mission dictates it (see #10 this popular feature!). In the end, DAS is a game changing technology, will be just as at home at sea, and probably more plentiful there as well, as it is in the air. In time, I would not be surprised to see the system deployed on everything from US Navy AEGIS cruises to Carnvial cruise ships.
One thing is for sure, the future is very, very observant!