The deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) over the Solomon Islands has quietly ushered in the first true, home-grown operational test for Australia's Network Centric Warfare (NCW) capability.
Although exact operational details remain under wraps, the locally manufactured Aerosonde UAVs are known to be providing surveillance, imagery and intelligence on the movements of warring factions and armaments through encrypted video and other means, transmitted in real time to both command and control centres and troops on the ground. And a few other things.
Fitted with a variety of cameras, sensors and communications equipment, the UAVs now form an integral part of an until-recently classified project by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) known as Project Nervana.
Nervana is aimed at the automation of a wide range of 'battlespace' functions in the pursuit of the holy grail of Information Superiority - or the capability to collect, process and disseminate information while thwarting any enemy capability to do so. As such, the UAV project is widely regarded as one of the first true applications of the NCW in the field, in this case to provide networked situational awareness for ground forces. Weighing in at 13.6kg with a wingspan of three metres, the Aerosonde UAV is powered by a 24cc engine running on premium unleaded fuel. The aircraft has a range of 2897kms at up to 20,000ft and can be networked for fully autonomous operation.
While official Defence channels and analysts remain tight lipped about the UAV deployment, Aerosonde's Web site reveals the UAVs aim to provide capabilities in electronic warfare (jamming), monitoring of electromagnetic spectrum (listening) and providing secure communication relays (talking), particularly useful for forces active in remote or inaccessible regions.
Published DSTO material also makes extensive reference to the ultimate aims of what it calls Aerosonde 'mini-UAVs' (of which DSTO has six) within the concept of Network Centric Warfare. These include networked capability known as Autonomous Vehicle Advanced Tactical Applications Research (AVATAR) which aims to use "formations of networked autonomous vehicles as a model to explore the capability edge obtained when networking multiple platforms and sensors" - otherwise known as pushing the network centric envelope.
Other applications of Nervana include the exploration of electronic warfare beyond the traditional goal of self-protection, or Force Level EW Simulation Environment, lovingly dubbed FLEWSE (pronounced floozy). This, says DSTO, is achieved through networking sensors, data fusion sensors, command and control and weapons systems.
DSTO describes the ultimate aims of the project in these terms: ". . . the study of team formation, distributed sensing, data fusion, sensor resource and energy management, and communication link control based on the concept of cooperating machines, the development of intelligent agent algorithms based on the self-organising observed in ant colonies, and the implementation of these algorithms within a simulation environment".
In the non-simulated case of the Solomons, the ants might just have been substituted by gangs led by Jimmy Rasta, Harold Keke and a local persona intriguingly named Satan - all under the watchful eye of the Army's 131 Surveillance and Target Acquisition (131 STA) Battery's new toy.