DARPA’S TERN pro­gramme aims for eye-in-the-from sea


Ef­fec­tive 21st-cen­tury war­fare re­quires the abil­ity to con­duct air­borne in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance (ISR) and strike mo­bile tar­gets any­where, around the clock. Cur­rent tech­nolo­gies, how­ever, have their lim­i­ta­tions. He­li­copters are rel­a­tively lim­ited in the dis­tance and flight time. Fixed-wing manned and un­manned air­craft can fly far­ther and longer but re­quire ei­ther air­craft car­ri­ers or large, fixed land bases with run­ways of­ten longer than a mile. More­over, es­tab­lish­ing th­ese bases or de­ploy­ing car­ri­ers re­quires sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial, diplo­matic and se­cu­rity com­mit­ments that are in­com­pat­i­ble with rapid re­sponse.

To help over­come th­ese chal­lenges and ex­pand DoD op­tions, DARPA has launched the Tac­ti­cally Ex­ploited Re­con­nais­sance Node (TERN) pro­gramme. Seek­ing to com­bine the strengths of both land- and seabased ap­proaches to sup­port­ing air­borne as­sets, TERN en­vi­sions us­ing smaller ships as mo­bile launch and re­cov­ery sites for medi­u­malti­tude long-en­durance (MALE) fixed-wing un­manned air­craft (UAVs). Named af­ter the fam­ily of seabirds known for flight en­durance — many species mi­grate thou­sands of miles each year – TERN aims to make it much eas­ier, quicker and less ex­pen­sive for DoD to de­ploy ISR and strike ca­pa­bil­i­ties al­most any­where in the world.

“It’s like hav­ing a fal­con re­turn to the arm of any per­son equipped to re­ceive it, in­stead of to the same static perch ev­ery time,” said Daniel Patt, DARPA Pro­gram Man­ager. “About 98 per cent of the world’s land area lies within 900 nau­ti­cal miles of ocean coast­lines. En­abling small ships to launch and re­trieve long-en­durance UAVs on de­mand would greatly ex­pand our si­t­u­a­tional aware­ness and our abil­ity to quickly and flex­i­bly en­gage in hotspots over land or water.”

DARPA seeks pro­pos­als that would de­sign, de­velop and demon­strate a MALE UAV and an as­so­ci­ated au­to­mated launch and re­cov­ery sys­tem. The UAV would have to carry a 600-pound pay­load and have an op­er­a­tional ra­dius of 600 to 900 nau­ti­cal miles from its host ves­sel. The launch and re­cov­ery sys­tem would have to fit Lit­toral Com­bat Ship 2 (LCS-2)-class ships and other sur­face com­bat ves­sels as fea­si­ble.

DARPA plans to roll out TERN in three phases over ap­prox­i­mately 40 months, cul­mi­nat­ing in a full-scale launch and re­cov­ery demon­stra­tion.

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