Army looks at the future of aircraft survivability

Mark Calafut works for the Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. (U.S. Army photo by Conrad Johnson)

Mark Calafut works for the Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. (U.S. Army photo by Conrad Johnson)

By Mark Calafut, CERDEC

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — The interconnected world of electronic systems provides an opportunity and a challenge for Army Aviation. As the Army develops its next-generation survivability systems, it has the opportunity to cost-effectively leverage advanced commercial electronics and integration technologies. However, it also faces the challenge of maintaining its technological edge, because many of those same commercial electronics are available to potential adversaries.

Today, Army aircraft are protected by a collection of survivability technologies, including onboard electronic survivability systems. Each onboard survivability system is designed to be independently effective at detecting or defeating a specific class of weapon systems, such as electro-optic and radio-frequency guided missiles or ballistic munitions. When adversaries employ these weapon systems against Army aircraft, the appropriate onboard survivability system automatically detects and defeats the threat, protecting the aircraft and crew.

Historically, onboard survivability systems were designed and developed independently. As technology matured and new weapon systems emerged, the Army upgraded existing survivability systems, or in some cases, added entirely new survivability systems to the aircraft. Instead of a truly integrated survivability suite, the result is a piecemeal approach whereby modern aircraft are protected by a collection of proprietary systems, often developed by different contractors and generally not built with open architectures that would much more readily enable their interoperability.

This presents disadvantages. Although many onboard systems require common components, the independent design and development of the systems prevents components from being centralized and shared. The independent designs came from systems not developed from a systems-of-systems approach with an open standard that established a technical vision for interoperable systems.

In many cases, this leads to duplication of components, such as processors or displays that would be unnecessary if the systems were integrated. However, the present lack of integration also prevents onboard systems from communicating with one another and operating cooperatively, which limits reliability and adaptability. For example, if a single protection system fails or is destroyed, the other onboard systems cannot intelligently compensate for that loss.


The potential benefits of integration are striking and go beyond merely addressing existing limitations. Modern networked electronics can implement cutting-edge intelligent algorithms to coordinate activities and adapt to new environments. Similar intelligent algorithms already are in use commercially, enabling smart devices to recommend activities and products by combining information from multiple sources and then connecting a particular combination of characteristics to a product.

These algorithms use all available information and systems to make smarter decisions for the user.
For example, if your smartphone recommends that you try dinner at a popular new restaurant, it may have “considered” elements of your personal history, such as your current location, recent searches on your laptop and shows you watched on your smart TV, as well as external information, such as the current weather forecast and restaurant reviews from other customers. Intelligent algorithms then make the connection between your particular combination of attributes and the new restaurant. If Army survivability systems were appropriately integrated, similar intelligent algorithms would enable networked systems to combine and share data across platforms, calculate and assess risk, and autonomously coordinate the best response to a threat.

Although the potential benefits of integration are significant, implementation faces many challenges, the first of which is technical. Existing systems were not designed to be integrated and do not share common interfaces and standards.

The second challenge is programmatic: Developing electronics in a piecemeal fashion is less complex and requires less coordination between organizations. The last of these challenges is systemic: The Army acquisition process does not provide an overarching technical framework that would require different program offices and technical areas to develop systems in concert with one another, using common components and open architectures, and transferring and sharing technologies that should be used together in disparate systems.

To overcome these challenges, the Army science and technology community is redefining the concept for survivability from a systems level to a holistic or system-of-systems perspective. From this broader perspective, the S&T community envisions a next generation of intelligent systems that work together to protect the aircraft and provide Army Aviation with a powerful opportunity to reduce costs, increase effectiveness and enhance survivability. These systems employ modular and open architectures that simplify integration and enable rapid component upgrades as technology advances.


The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center has established Integrated Air and Ground- Survivability as a strategic focus for its S&T programs.

This optimizes total platform survivability through the integration and coordination of individual systems, groups of systems and platforms. The effort’s long-term vision establishes an intelligent survivability suite capable of coordinating all survivability systems’ activities on the battlefield, with the ultimate intention of coordinating distributed platform-agnostic systems to implement the optimal countermeasure.

The integrated air and ground survivability concept allows CERDEC to overcome implementation challenges and plan unified S&T efforts in the electronic warfare and aircraft survivability domains. Although some S&T programs focus explicitly on integration objectives, many programs focus instead on specific systems or technologies. The integrated framework allows the Army S&T community to categorize and conceptually orient programs with respect to the greater aircraft survivability picture, and allows decision-makers in turn to better assess how well current investments address long-term objectives.

Historically, survivability in the presence of a threat has been characterized as a series of stages. The first stage is to avoid detection by the threat. If the aircraft cannot be detected by the threat, survivability is ensured. However, if it is impossible to avoid detection, the next stage is to avoid engagement. If the aircraft can be detected by the threat but not engaged, survivability is again ensured. When it is impossible to avoid engagement, the next stage is to avoid or absorb damage to the aircraft. Finally, when it is impossible to avoid damage, the last stage is to avoid destruction of the aircraft. A variety of survivability systems and technologies address each stage of this hierarchy.

Rather than seeing survivability systems as independent entities, the Army’s integrated approach envisions battlefield survivability systems holistically, as a distributed, coordinated network of capabilities. When Army aviation encounters threats, every networkable asset on the battlefield would leverage information across distributed sources to autonomously collaborate to avoid detection and engagement and subsequently avoid damage and destruction. The network would employ intelligent algorithms at each stage to access information from all survivability systems on the battlefield, as well as from the intelligence enterprise across the Army, DOD and intelligence community. If detection cannot be avoided, the intelligent network would use all available information to locate and identify the threats. The intelligent network would then prioritize the threats, consider available resources and implement optimal countermeasures for each threat. Getting to that holistic capability will be incremental.

The first stages are to share information and coordinate between the survivability systems on the aircraft. The next stage is to bring in information from other on-board sensors. Subsequent stages are to share information and coordinate between platforms and different assets. The initial software architecture is intended to be extensible to build the foundation for this long-term vision.


Under the integrated air and ground survivability concept, the future survivability suite is no longer a collection of stove-piped capabilities, but instead a distributed and integrated network of systems across individual air and ground platforms. These systems communicate autonomously with other onboard systems as well as with systems on other platforms.

At the single platform level, the future integrated air suite is coordinated through an integration framework and an intelligent engagement controller. The integration framework provides the physical connections between onboard systems and the central processing capability to correlate and analyze data. The intelligent engagement controller is a software application that operates on top of the integration framework and serves as the “brain” of the distributed survivability suite. It has access to data from all onboard survivability systems, including missile warning systems, hostile fire detection systems, laser-warning receivers, radar-warning receivers and electro-optic and radio-frequency countermeasure systems.

The application continuously assesses data from the onboard survivability systems to detect potential threats; it is implemented with an open software architecture that enables new data sources to be incorporated easily into the existing framework. As the platform encounters threats, the intelligent engagement controller uses advanced cognitive algorithms to locate and identify threats; it then designs optimal countermeasures. In effect, the algorithms identify and implement the sequence of actions that maximize the survivability of the platform, given the unique parameters of the engagement.

At the platform level, individual survivability suites are integrated into a network that continuously shares information and access to resources. The intelligent engagement controller on each platform incorporates information from other platforms when assessing and locating potential threats. Following the identification of threats, the individual suites collaborate to implement a coordinated countermeasure response, leveraging assets from all available platforms.

In the long term, the network of integrated air systems is also integrated with a corresponding network of integrated ground survivability systems. The overall network is connected to external resources, including assets from the intelligence enterprise, enabling air and ground survivability systems to collaboratively detect, identify and defeat threats encountered on the battlefield.


Developing the future survivability suite involves continuously balancing investment priorities. With potential threat weapons and technologies, the Army must decide how to invest most effectively in these systems and technologies to affect overall survivability with given budgets and resources. Over the next decade, the Army will continue to stay ahead of threat weapon systems by investing in critical component technologies and integration efforts, such as those that are establishing common interface specifications and common control software.

But what do we do with our systems once they are interoperable? How do we intelligently coordinate these systems–whether they are on the same aircraft or distributed across the battlefield–to make better real-time decisions? And what benefit can this “intelligent integration” ultimately have for platform survivability? That’s what we, as an S&T community, are trying to build toward and demonstrate over the next several years. A major part of that path is interoperability, but it’s almost a step in the vision rather than the vision itself.

Over the next five years, the Army S&T community is expected to reach a major milestone, completing a new generation of cutting-edge intelligent algorithms and technologies that have never been used in this application. This milestone marks a major first step in establishing an integrated survivability suite, demonstrating the powerful benefit of intelligent algorithms for aircraft survivability.

Overall, the focus on integrated air and ground survivability will ensure that the next generation of Army survivability systems remains at the forefront of capability and technology.


Editor’s note: Mark Calafut works for the Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He has a master of science in electrical engineering from Stanford University and a bachelor of science in economics from Swarthmore College. He is Level III certified in engineering and is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps.

This article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on aviation research. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.

The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America’s Soldiers.

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