The Army’s new sensors can track small arms fire to its source
The Army is engineering new Hostile Fire Detection sensors for its fleet of armored combat vehicles to identify, track, and target enemy small arms fire.
Even if the enemy rounds being fired are from small arms fire and not necessarily an urgent or immediate threat to heavily armored combat vehicles such as an Abrams, Stryker, or Bradley, there is naturally great value in quickly finding the location of incoming enemy attacks, Army weapons developers explain.
There is a range of sensors now being explored by Army developers; infrared sensors, for example, are designed to identify the "heat" signature emerging from enemy fire and, over the years, the Army has also used focal plane array detection technology as well as acoustic sensors.
"We are collecting threat signature data and assessing sensors and algorithm performance," Gene Klager, Deputy Director, Ground Combat Systems Division, Night Vision, and Electronic Sensors Directorate, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
Klager's unit, which works closely with Army acquisition to identify and, at times, fast-track technology to war, is part of the Army's Communications, Electronics, Research, Development, and Engineering Center (CERDEC).
Army senior leaders also told Warrior Maven the service will be further integrating HFD sensors this year in preparation for more formals testing to follow in 2019.
Enabling counterattack is a fundamental element of this because being able to ID enemy fire would enable vehicle crews to attack targets from beneath the protection of an armored hatch.
The Army currently deploys a targeting and attack system called Common Remotely Operated Weapons System, or CROWS; using a display screen, targeting sensors and controls operating externally mounted weapons, CROWS enables soldiers to attack from beneath the protection of armor.
"If we get a hostile fire detection, the CROWS could be slued to that location to engage what we call slue to cue," Klager said.
Much of the emerging technology tied to these sensors can be understood in the context of artificial intelligence, or AI. Computer automation, using advanced algorithms and various forms of analytics, can quickly process incoming sensor data to ID a hostile fire signature.
"AI also takes other information into account and helps reduce false alarms," Klager explained.
AI developers often explain that computers are able to much more efficiently organize information and perform key procedural functions, such as performing checklists or identifying points of relevance; however, many of those same experts also add that human cognition, as something uniquely suited to solving dynamic problems and weighing multiple variables in real time, is nonetheless something still indispensable to most combat operations.
Over the years, there have been a handful of small arms detection technologies tested and incorporated into helicopters; one of them, which first emerged as something the Army was evaluating in 2010 is called Ground Fire Acquisition System, or GFAS.
This system, integrated onto Apache Attack helicopters, uses infrared sensors to ID a "muzzle flash" or heat signature from an enemy weapon. The location of enemy fire could then be determined by a gateway processor on board the helicopter able to quickly geolocate the attack.
While Klager said there are, without question, similarities between air-combat HFD technologies and those emerging for ground combat vehicles, he did point to some distinct differences.
"From ground to ground, you have a lot more moving objects," he said.
Potential integration between HFD and Active Protection Systems is also part of the calculus, Klager explained. APS technology, now being assessed on Army Abrams tanks, Bradleys and Strykers, uses sensors, fire control technology and interceptors to ID and knock out incoming RPGs and ATGMs, among other things. While APS, in concept and application, involves threats larger or more substantial than things like small arms fire, there is great combat utility in synching APS to HFD.
"HFD involves the same function that would serve as a cueing sensor as part of an APS system," Klager said
The advantages of this kind of interoperability are multi-faceted. Given that RPGs and ATGMs are often fired from the same location as enemy small arms fire, an ability to track one, the other, or both in real time greatly improves situational awareness and targeting possibilities.
Furthermore, such an initiative is entirely consistent with ongoing Army modernization efforts which increasingly look toward more capable, multi-function sensors. The idea is to have a merged or integrated smaller hardware footprint, coupled with advanced sensing technology, able to perform a wide range of tasks historically performed by multiple separate, onboard systems.
Consolidating vehicle technologies and "boxes" is the primary thrust of an emerging Army combat vehicle C4ISR/EW effort called "Victory" architecture. Using Ethernet networking tech, Victory synthesizes sensors and vehicle systems onto a common, interoperable system. This technology is already showing a massively increased ability to conduct electronic warfare attacks from combat vehicles, among other things.
HFD for ground combat vehicles, when viewed in light of rapidly advancing combat networking technologies, could bring substantial advantages in the realm of unmanned systems. The Army and industry are currently developing algorithms to better enable manned-unmanned teaming among combat vehicles. The idea is to have a "robotic wingman," operating in tandem with armored combat vehicles, able to test enemy defenses, find targets, conduct ISR, carry weapons and ammunition or even attack enemies.
"All that we are looking at could easily be applicable to an unmanned system," Klager said.