Warplanes: March 14, 2000

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LOCAAS (Low Cost Autonomous Attack System) may be the key to an entirely new kind of warfare, one where humans do not directly pick the targets. The small and cheap turbojet-powered LOCAAS cruise missiles would be sent into an area where various intelligence systems had located enemy forces. Each LOCAAS missile would be programmed to use one or more sensors to study the ground below it and detect possible targets, then classify them and look for the one that matches a target profile. For example, a given missile might be told to look for a Scud missile launcher, and to ignore the various armored vehicles guarding it. In theory, LOCAAS will even be smart enough to determined when it is under attack and take evasive maneuvers. Such a system would not require pilots to risk their lives and aircraft in dangerous areas, and would allow high-value targets to be "culled out of the herd" by relatively few missiles. The on-board computer can be programmed with priorities. A missile sent looking for a Scud launcher might accept an air defense missile launcher in the last 30 minutes of its cruise time, or any armored vehicle in the last five minutes. The warhead is designed with dual modes to account for target types. A metal rod would be kept intact if the target was an armored vehicle, but fragmented into shrapnel if the target was a parked aircraft or a missile on a launcher. This could reduce overall battlefield casualties and even short-circuit offensives or even wars. An entire Army Division might be immobilized, for example, if two its dozen bridge launchers are destroyed. One key to making LOCAAS work is to keep the cost down. The Pentagon expects to buy the missiles for $100,000 each, a tenth of the cost of a Tomahawk. Savings will come from using GPS for navigation and lidar (laser radar) to detect terrain (and targets). The main concern is that the self-controlled missile might make a spectacular and politically-embarrassing mistake, for example identifying a "station wagon full of nuns" as an armored command post vehicle.--Stephen V Cole

 


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