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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) The future of stealth fighter jets, robotic attack vehicles, missile guidance systems, tank target acquisition and even ICBM performance are merely a few of the many things largely reliant upon continuous software modernization.

Recognizing this, and the ever-increasing pace of technological change, the Pentagon is making a specific and decided push to reshape the way it acquires, modernizes, integrates and operates software. Much of the strategy aligns with the Pentagon’s longstanding effort to ensure technological upgrades of key weapons systems keep pace with the changing threat landscape and rapid technological advancement.

Keeping pace with software modernization, senior Army leaders explain, requires rapid, continuous modifications in alignment with the pace of change on an ongoing basis without having fixed “increments” or software drops spread out by years in between. The Under Secretary of the Army, Gabe Camarillo, described this as “agile software development.”

“We are now conducting several pilots across the software requirements development and testing communities to establish a process that streamline the requirements definition base, implementing early testing of incremental deliveries and maximizing automation as much as possible,” Camarillo told reporters recently when talking about the service’s fast-evolving combat network.

Camarillo cited the Army’s fast-evolving Robotic Combat Vehicle program as evidence of how “agile” software acquisition and development can quickly improve key performance parameters. Rapid integration of new software, for example, can improve the sensing, targeting and surveillance capacity of armed robots in need of quickly confirming or identifying threat information. Camarillo’s reference to “automation” also seems quite significant, as advances in computing and autonomy can, for instance, speed up and improve the pace and accuracy with which a robotic vehicle can acquire and then “verify” emerging targets.

“With the Robotic Combat Vehicle….. for the first time, our software modules are controlled via a single open architecture,” Camarillo said.

Software upgrades and improved computer automation, for example, now enables sensors to identify targets which were previously much too challenging to “verify.” This is the basis of a now functioning technology called Automatic Aided Target Recognition (ATR), an AI-enabled system which uses advanced algorithms to bounce new incoming sensor data off of a vast database to make identifications in a matter of seconds, or near real time. Once new threat specifics are loaded into the database, autonomous sensors can themselves gather, organize, analyze and verify time-sensitive combat data such as the configuration of a specific enemy vehicle.

Former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper explained this phenomenon rather simply, saying software will likely decide who “wins the next war.”

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Interestingly, the advent of ATR was envisioned and anticipated as far back as 1997, as evidenced in an essay called “Aided and Automatic Target Recognition Based Upon Sensory Inputs From Image Forming Systems.” (James A. Ratches, C.P. Walters, Rudolf G. Buser, and B. D. Guenther).

“Image intensifiers, thermal imaging, high-resolution television, and lasers are prime examples of the technologies employed by the military. The data from these sensors pour in along with demands on the soldier to make rapid decisions. The soldier needs to efficiently use all sensor information and requires image processing to aid the decision-making process. These requirements are the origin of the concept of Automatic (or aided) Target Recognition (ATR),” the essay writes.

Most emerging ground combat platforms, to include the Robotic Combat Vehicle, tanks and future infantry carriers such as the Optionally Manned Combat Vehicle, are already slated to operate with advanced levels of ATR. At the time of the 1997 essay, the authors describe the ”merit of ATR systems” as an ability to “identify targets from background clutter and system noise.” While significant and indeed accurate, the rapid advent and integration of AI-enabled computing, fortified by rapid software enhancements, can increasingly discern and identify new targets amid an increasingly complex, cluttered or “challenged” combat environment.

For instance, in more recent years, should new threat information about potential enemy weapons signatures or configurations emerge, rapid software upgrades can improve the performance of radars, sensors and targeting technologies without requiring changes to the hardware or form factor. Software upgrades, for example, have already greatly improved the performance and missile guidance technology of key weapons systems such as the F-22 and some of the air-to-air weapons they fire, such as the AIM-120D and AIM-9X. In fact much of the avionics, sensing and command and control technology built into the F-22 were enhanced years ago by a platform-wide software upgrade referred to as 3.2b. Looking further across the services,, the Navy’s SM-6 and SM-3IIA ship-launched missiles, for instance, were massively improved through software upgrades. The SM-6 integrated a “dual-mode” seeker enabling the missile to adjust course to destroy moving targets “in flight,” and the SM-3IIA variant similarly relied upon software improvements to improve range and target discrimination. In yet another instance, F-35 pilots can quickly learn of specific new threat configurations through rapid addition to its Mission Data Files, a computerized library or database of known threats.

This technological strategy was identified years ago, when former Air Force Chief Information Security Officer Mr. Peter Kim clearly explained that cybersecurity, data management and processing and information management has migrated far beyond the world of IT to encompass larger weapons platforms, combat networking security and AI-enabled data analysis.

What may have previously been thought of as primarily fundamental to IT, data systems, servers, cloud migration and computer-based cybersecurity innovation has in recent years exploded to increasingly incorporate a massive sphere of additional technologies.

This may seem self-evident enough and have been known for many years, as the F-35 has come to be known as a “flying computer,” unmanned systems perform high-speed data processing and “transmission” from the point of collection, and multiple nodes across a joint-multidomain theater now rely upon a larger sphere of transport layer technologies in need of security such as software programmable radio, wireless RF guidance systems, GPS transmissions and even emerging optical forms of data transit.

Given that many, if not most, near term technological advances will take place in the realm of sensing, AI-enabled computing, data organization and analysis, the F-35 is an example of a platform which can greatly improve performance through rolling or continuous software upgrades without requiring a need to re-engineer its hardware. Throughout the years, the F-35 has been known for receiving specific “blocks” or incremental software “drops'' spread out by years in between, each designed to expand its performance and functionality. More recently, the pace of technological change has inspired Pentagon developers and senior service leaders to make a specific effort to pursue a continuous or even seamless acceleration of software upgrades to the F-35 at the pace at which they emerge.

Kris Osborn is President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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.