The U.S. Army’s Ambitious Demo Links Weapons On Future Battlefield

unmanned aircraft system used in Project Convergence
An unmanned aircraft system used in Project Convergence 2020 attacked the enemy while carrying multiple payloads.
Credit: U.S. Army Photo by Patrick Enright

The U.S. Army realizes that whoever can harness artificial intelligence to shorten the decision cycle on the battlefield will win in the next war.

Since 2017, the service has worked to quickly modernize its aging weapons, pursuing next-generation helicopters and artillery systems with a range of 500 km (300 mi.). Within the last year, service leadership launched Project Convergence, a technology experiment that would link those modernization portfolios, such as Future Vertical Lift or Long-Range Precision Fires. The goal calls for those new measures to work together with sensors, satellites and shooters to speed decision-making in a future conflict, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters aboard an Air Force Boeing C-40 on a flight to see the effort in action.

  • Reduced decision cycle time from 20 min. to 20 sec.
  • Army must produce “hundreds” of software engineers

Over 500 people took part in the inaugural Project Convergence experiment. The service anticipates producing results and recommendations on the path forward by early next year, but the Army is already planning future iterations of Project Convergence. In 2021, the experiment will include the joint force, and in 2022 coalition partners will joint the effort.

Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona served as home base for the six-week live test of key modernization technologies and weapon systems. A principal objective of Project Convergence is to advance and integrate the Army’s contributions to the joint force via Multidomain Operations (MDO). The service took journalists from a group of publications, including Aviation Week, to view a live demonstration of Project Convergence at Yuma.

MDO is the Army’s contribution to Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), which is the Defense Department’s concept to connect sensors from all the military services (Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Space Force) into a single network. JADC2 is one of the Pentagon’s top priorities, according to Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The ambitious experiment, which included scenarios from the different phases of a land invasion, culminated with a live demonstration featuring 34 new technologies.

The first phase, Penetrate, used satellites in low Earth orbit to detect enemy ground launchers for anti-aircraft missiles. The information was sent from space to a ground processing station, the Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access (TITAN) node, located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. From there, the TITAN operator sent a target data message to Yuma, where a fire command was processed and sent to the Extended-Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) system that will replace the Paladin.

Next, a scout helicopter—filling in as a surrogate for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA)—located the enemy air defenses’ C2 node, a wheeled amphibious armored personnel carrier, using object detection artificial intelligence (AI) known as Dead Center. Air-Launched Effects (ALE) were then fired from the helicopter that provided a floating mesh network beyond 50 km, and an autonomously flying MQ-1C Gray Eagle swooped in at 300 ft.—far under its normal operating point of 10,000 ft.—to hit the target with a Hellfire missile.

Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk
An air-launched effects system is loaded onto a Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk used at Project Convergence 2020. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Javion Siders, 92nd Combat Camera Company 

The second phase, Disintegrate, intended to eradicate the remainder of the enemy’s anti-aircraft capabilities. A FARA surrogate equipped with ALEs canvassed for other targets, sending that data back through the mesh network. An AI concept called Firestorm (FIRES Synchronization to Optimize Responses in MDO) took the data, mapped the battlefield, and generated recommendations as to which weapon was best positioned to hit the target. ERCA fired a shot, hitting a multiple launch rocket system roughly 56 km away.

An MQ-1C transmitted target data based on visual information, without GPS or laser designation, to another Gray Eagle that attempted to hit the target with a GBU-69 munition. In this scenario, the Army faced a hiccup because the communication link was lost and the target was not hit.

The third phase, Exploit, found manned and unmanned vehicles patrolling the area. The Army employed Aided Target Recognition Software (AiDTR) to locate targets such as armored transport vehicles. Firestorm sent Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) surrogates to hit targets. A small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) equipped with AiDTR, Tarot, launched and detected infantry fighting vehicles. Firestorm directed soldiers to use mortars to suppress the adversary until they could hit the target directly. Soldiers in the NGCVs directed unmanned ground vehicles to launch small helicopter reconnaissance. As enemies continued to emerge, Firestorm sent recommendations on which weapons to fire.

Behind the scenes, Army personnel sat side by side with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) staff to figure out how to get all the new equipment—the FARA surrogate, ALEs, autonomous UAS, mesh network and fires—to work together. CMU received a five-year contract in the spring of 2020 to support research and development of an innovation framework with the goal of accelerating Advanced Algorithms, Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence (A4I) technologies.

The team was able to reduce the decision cycle time from about 20 min. to 20 sec., which was possible by leveraging space-based assets, an existing network and AI.

The Army employed, “coding at the edge,” meaning software engineers were on-site in the desert’s 105F heat rewriting and updating algorithms in real time. One of the items Army Secretary McCarthy assessed while at the demonstration was determining the number of software engineers the service will need on a future battlefield.

“We’re going to have to produce hundreds of people,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy likens the push to have software engineers on the front lines as similar to Wall Street’s move in the early 2000s to locate activities as close as possible to the stock exchange. This allowed firms to process trades milliseconds faster than competitors.

“They were literally fighting over office space in southern Manhattan to get closer to the exchange,” says McCarthy. “We have to get closer to the edge because the speed of finding a target and sending it to something that can process it—the speed of calling a fire mission, a medevac mission—that’s what we’re after.

As true with all experiments, not everything worked perfectly. For example, the video stream showed a weapon firing and the target still standing. “Aided target recognition, it’s brittle,” says Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, NGVC cross-functional team director and director of Project Convergence. “We need more work [and] more sets, to continue to train and solidify [aided target recognition] and do it on the move with rough terrain and stability systems. The air-to-air and air-to-ground coordination worked extremely well. The mapping worked very well. I’m very pleased, but we all have our eyes wide open.”

The exercise positions the Army for what will certainly be a budget battleground among military services. With defense budgets projected to stay flat regardless of who is sitting in the White House, any effort connected to the Joint Chiefs of Staff-backed JADC2 is a growth area in which services can compete for funding.

The Air Force’s pitch for JADC2 is building an internet of things, known as the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a system for network connectivity similar to the Army’s now-defunct Future Combat Systems. Initially, ABMS was supposed to replace the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, but the effort evolved into a JADC2 solution.

Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper acknowledged the similarity last month, but said the main difference is the Air Force is attempting the undertaking in the internet age.

“This is a program to touch everything we build,” Roper said. “Unlike [the Army’s] Future Combat Systems, we are doing it in a way that has never been attempted before. That’s why it just might succeed.” 

Air Force and Army leadership met for staff talks on Sept. 24 and one of the topics on the docket was how they will each contribute to MDO and JADC2, including how to reduce the sensor-to-shooter cycle time, according to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. 

A key result of the staff talks is the Air Force and Army signing a two-year collaboration agreement to develop Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control capabilities with a focus on defining mutual standards for data sharing on a future battlefield. The new initiative combines the Army’s Project Convergence with the Air Force’s ABMS.

Another effort the agencies discussed is the Air Force’s interest in the Army’s Precision-Strike Missile (PrSM), which is slated to enter the field in 2023 and replace the Army Tactical Missile System (Atacms).

Within the next year, the Army will shoot PrSM at longer ranges with the intent of firing it 500 km. This is a much greater distance than the 300 km Atacms available to soldiers today. Another advantage of the new missile is that the Army can carry two PrSMs inside the same launcher used for Atacms.

Another program of interest for the Air Force, according to McConville, is the Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System that will eventually be used for base defense for the joint force.

Lee Hudson

Based in Washington, Lee covers the Pentagon for Aviation Week. Prior to joining Aviation Week in June 2018, Lee was at Inside Defense where she was managing editor for Inside the Navy.