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By Kris Osborn President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington, D.C.) Lasers, hypersonics, robots and precision weaponry are all fast becoming key elements of the Army’s operational arsenal, and each of these paradigm-changing weapons systems first emerged from the Science and Technology element of the service.

The Army is making a decided push to better integrate the science and technology community with rapid acquisition and the operational sphere as a way to fast track promising new technologies to war.

Disruptive Technologies & War

While there has always been a certain synergy between research, scientific inquiry, innovation and active military operations in terms of “urgent” needs statements or requests for a given technology, now the Army is making new efforts to respond to the rapid pace of change by linking breakthrough or disruptive technologies more closely with current soldier needs in war.

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“The way that it was looked at in the past, and I think the way that many people still think of it is that there is science technology, then there's a valley of death. Then there's the engineering and production piece, that skips the entire process of going from a demonstration, which is really what science and technology is, and we move in to an actual first article that allows us the ability to employ and learn at a small scale,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd, Chief Innovation Officer, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview.

Successful execution of this kind of strategy relies upon what Todd referred to as rapid prototyping, meaning efforts to engineer functional applications of a given promising technology with the hope of making a rapid transition to production and deployment to soldiers in war.

Referring to hypersonics, lasers and precision weaponry, Todd told Warrior that “in the context of a modernization continuum, those systems were demonstrated and then prototyped in a rapid fashion. That helped us to not only employ it operationally early, but also to be able to evaluate it from an operational context and see how the division commander would use those. This idea of going from experimentation straight to scaling to a large scale is just not realistic. As a matter of fact, it doesn't survive.”

Early prototypes or demonstrator models of new technology and weapons which have shown promise in testing can then be evaluated in an operational context to help refine and establish requirements. This approach offers a clear and impactful window through which Army weapons developers can expedite development and delivery of new technologies.

The Army has been working intensely to successfully “network” the force in real time across domains for decades, going back to the services’ Future Combat Systems effort in the early 2000s and subsequent attempts to generate interoperability through Joint Tactical Radio Systems software programmable radio technology. There were strides forward, moments of progress and even some breakthroughs, yet the ability to truly network the force in real time and quickly link sensors to shooters by organizing information never quite materialized. Until now.

In the last several years, the Army has demonstrated breakthrough ways of using AI-enabled computers to massively shorten sensor to shooter time from 20mins to 20seconds and essentially “attack at the speed of warfare.” In development for several years, some of these breakthroughs began to take shape during the Army’s Project Convergence beginning in 2020. Mini-drones, larger unmanned systems, helicopters and ground combat vehicles are now increasingly able to operate as real-time, data-sharing “nodes” across a joint force, due to breakthroughs in the application of AI, data analysis and the successful use of gateway systems able to essentially “translate” or connect data from otherwise incompatible transport layer technologies. While there is no question that current progress builds upon and has been informed by previous efforts, something has definitely shifted in defining and even paradigm-changing ways.

What changed? The Chief Innovation Officer for Army Futures Command Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd described the shift to Warrior as a large movement toward “persistent modernization.”

“If you really think about it, we've gone from a fairly episodic approach every once in a while, kind of coming up with the next big idea, to really persistent modernization. That's where we've always wanted to be, we don't ever want our soldiers to have a career where they're never modernized. We actually want them to expect to be modernized. And to always be trying to figure out how to use the next thing, that they'd obviously give us an advantage on the future battlefield,” Todd said.

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There are some very interesting parallels between the concepts behind the Army’s former Future Combat Systems and Project Convergence. One could, in a general way, suggest that Project Convergence represents the “achievement” of the “system of systems” networking ambitions first outlined by FCS. While FCS was canceled, in part because the technology had not reached the requisite level of maturity, the ability to link armored vehicles to sensors, drones and even dismounted soldiers in real-time was indeed the vision of FCS. Certainly the advent and maturation of many key new technologies, coupled with enterprising Army modernization strategies, helped accelerate the process of bringing this to fruition at Project Convergence, yet Todd said the intensity of the Army’s effort has been filled with a sense of “urgency.”

“There's a huge sense of urgency inside the Army, hence, the major institutional trench change to get after concepts and early technology so that we inform and actually have better chances of success of our programs work. Make no mistake about it, this is no game we're in, we're in the business of life and limb, and we cannot get it wrong, or we have to get it at least less wrong than our adversary. And at the end of the day, we're not going to be perfect. But I think, you know, the experimentation we're doing in real time with these new concepts allows us to have a much better chance of getting it right,” Todd said.

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As part of this overall effort, the Army is revving up for its annual experiment “in the dirt” as weapons developers called it, an “experiment in learning” wherein the service places breakthrough technologies into tactical situations with soldiers and a new generation of weapons, drones, platforms and AI-enabled computing.

Beginning in 2020, Project Convergence has been pushing the envelope of the much discussed “sensor-to-shooter” timeline to get “inside” of an enemy’s decision cycle and make critical, time-sensitive decisions ahead of an adversary to prevail in war. Using an AI-capable system called FireStorm, forward mini-drones called “Air Launched Effects” can relay target data specifics to larger drone, helicopter and ground attack platform which can be gathered, organized and transmitted to human decision-makers. A targeting and sensor-to-shooter pairing process used to require as long as 20minutes, and using high-speed, AI-capable computing and a “meshed” network of sensors, the process is now being done in 20 seconds. This is truly a paradigm-changing breakthrough, as advanced algorithms employed by AI-capable computers can organize otherwise disparate pools of sensor data and identify the optimal “weapon” or “shooter” or “countermeasure” method for a given combat circumstance in a matter of seconds.

Now in its third year, the Army’s Project Convergence experiment has evolved to incorporate more joint, multi-domain connectivity and is also now expanding to include NATO allies as well.

The Chief Innovation Officer of Army Futures Command, Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd, says the Project Convergence efforts have helped enable a strategy of “persistent modernization” wherein adjustments, adaptation and software upgrades can be made continuously.

“Until we started experiments, especially the mixing of system experiments with operational experiments, we truly never understood both. Number one the operational value that we were trying to get out of it, nor could we achieve it. We also didn't understand, quite frankly, what could be, I would say, when conflict arises, that's too late. So we have to get after it. It's paramount,” Todd told Warrior in an interview.

This synergy between the operational and experimental is exactly what Project Convergence seeks to capture and learn from, as emerging technologies regularly change maneuver formations, tactics and overall approaches to Combined Arms Maneuver. For instance, a multi-domain-capable networked force with longer-range sensors and high-speed data processing can enable a more dispersed, yet highly lethal force in ways that have never previously been possible. A mini-drone could identify a target and, in a matter of seconds, transmit specifics to an AI-empowered database to immediately determine the best method of attack. The idea is to fight at the “speed of relevance,” and destroy an enemy at safer standoff ranges before being detected.

“Last year, Project convergence last year was aimed at sensors and shooters, right, and many of those are artillery. The reality is what we're after is all sensors and the best shooter all the time……so linking and integrating sensors,” Todd explained. 

The Army is taking measures to fully empower and network the future force through a dispersed, integrated series of “meshed” nodes, multi-domain force and series of “gateway” technologies designed to connect different transport layer formats to one another.

The concept is to accumulate, gather and organize otherwise disparate pools of incoming sensor data and connect them to one another in real time. Perhaps an RF signal is bringing in communications data, while a GPS receiver is tracking detail provided from satellites and computer networks are using common IP protocol standards to exchange data? This is precisely the kind of scenario for which the Army is developing “gateway” technology systems able to essentially “translate” data arriving in different formats and technical configurations to organize, distill and analyze information streams in relation to one another in real time.

One such “gateway” oriented AI-program now being fast-tracked by the Army is called Rainmaker, a technology aimed at integrating sensor data through a specific “architecture” designed to break down barriers and enable interoperability and data sharing through a common technical configuration. Rainmaker, which integrates sensor data, is aligned with an AI-enabled system called Firestorm which pairs sensor and targeting specifics with shooters or weapons systems.

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“We have certainly launched out with innovation funds on an AI program called Rainmaker, and it is getting after integrated sensors, and we have launched out already on an acceleration effort with Firestorm, which is linking shooters. This combination of the two, allows us to put the entire architecture together that needs to be there to fully sense and fully engage,” Todd said. 

While breakthroughs have been taking place for the last several years, the Army is still quick to refer to its ongoing Project Convergence experiments as a “campaign of learning” exercise wherein weapons developers discover the realm of the possible refine requirements and test the limits of operational use for promising new systems.

“Rainmaker is essentially a reference architecture for us to build off of, and continue to evolve off. If we needed an AI architecture for sensors, that's it, we've chosen it. We've said that's what we're going to use to not only demonstrate research, discover and evolve, but also protect our data. “This whole idea of protection of data is huge. Data is almost everything to us on the future battlefield. Right. It is our eyes and ears. It helps us make decisions. It helps us with targeting and helps us with patient care. It helps us with all kinds of things and so in the sensor arena for us, Rainmaker becomes how we talk to industry, how we talk to researchers, how we operationalize. And so we have a common foundation to work off of,” Todd said.

The idea is to engineer a level of synergy across domains and among different communications technologies such as radios, datalinks, computing, GPS and other transport layer systems.

“If you fail to do the demonstrations, and if you fail to do the prototyping, then you have a much lower probability of success. And we've seen that in the past. But now we're seeing great success because we are doing the demonstrations here in AFC and forming the early requirements, handing it over to a prototyping effort, and then seeing if it's worth scaling or not,” Todd said. 

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.