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Seconds after a group of enemy fighters emerge from behind a ridge, U.S. Army soldiers discern and transmit location and targeting details across an entire dismounted unit using software programmable radio-generated high-bandwidth waveforms to instantly network data.
Perhaps then a drone, helicopter or nearby ground unit can instantly respond to counterattack with precision?
Extending beyond this self-contained ad-hoc network wherein each radio is itself also a wireless router linking other nodes, what if this terrestrial connectivity could also send time-sensitive data to a command center equipped with Medium or Low Earth Orbit Satellite terminals?
In this instance, key combat details can not only be networked across a deployed force in a specific geographical area of operations, but commanders and decision-makers potentially thousands of miles away might also see crucial information in real time.
This kind of technical capacity, long on the radar and under development by Army networking engineers, can extend command and control and combat situational awareness across thousands of miles, giving decision makers an ability to receive an integrated battlefield picture. Not only that, commanders can then offer input, direct resources or make crucial maneuver decisions based upon new, incoming threat information.
Secure Information Sharing
This ability has been the goal of an Army integrated, fast, system of systems network for nearly several decades. It is now possible.
The Army’s second iteration of its breakthrough “experiment of learning” Project Convergence exercise at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., continued this year to demonstrate paradigm-changing breakthroughs in the realm of secure information sharing, large decreases in latency and a staggering acceleration in sensor-to-shooter time.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said the Army will build upon the success of Project Convergence and likely transition certain key technologies to operational status quickly.
“We do need to be looking at what is coming out of PC 21, What technologies, for example, have the potential to be transitioned, relatively soon into the operating force? Because there may be technologies that are ready to go,” Wormuth said following the exercise.
Beyond this, more nodes are now possible as the experiment has succeeded with multi-domain air-ground-sea connectivity and leverage new technology and tactics such as unmanned-unmanned teaming.
During Project Convergence, developers had a solar powered drone remain airborne to extend the aerial tier of the ad-hoc network.
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“At Yuma we had manned-unmanned teams on the ground and also ground unmanned vehicles and air unmanned vehicles able to leverage the communication relay drone. This increased their range on the ground, connected them to one another and extended their situational awareness back to higher headquarters,” Col. Eric Van Den Bosch, Chief of Staff, Network Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.
Using Medium Earth Orbit satellite connectivity, Army engineers and commanders were able to send key combat data from command post to command post from Fort Lewis, Wash., to two locations at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, Van Den Bosh explained.
While this might not seem unusual as point-to-point SATCOM has existed for a bit, there are several key elements to the breakthrough, such as “throughput,” “speed,” increased information assurance and “security” and, perhaps most of all, an ability to get information to the “tactical edge” of combat at what weapons developers call “the speed of relevance.”
This “tactical mesh” on the edge was brought to life by the Army recently in the Army’s Project Convergence 21, according to Van Den Bosch.
“Our coms relay was done on the ranges in order to support air-to-ground as well as aerial connectivity. Soldiers got into a UH 60 (utility helicopter) with surrogate capabilities. We could see their location within the helicopter, so the helicopter was talking to the other helicopter and we were still able to communicate and see the soldier on the ground,” Van Den Bosch explained.
The concept not only brings situational awareness back to higher headquarters but informs nearly instant, real-time tactical decisions. That is the essence of Project Convergence, essentially making life and death combat decisions and attacks in seconds by completely a sensor-to-shooter process which has historically taken 20 or more minutes, if not longer.
Much of this is enabled by an AI-enabled computer system called Firestorm. Working as AI does, the computer system was able to gather otherwise disparate pools of incoming sensor data, organize it to find key moments of relevance, perform analytics and bounce new information off of a seemingly limitless database to find an optimal countermeasure, attack mode or weapon with which to address or strike a particular target.
This can happen in milliseconds, and the AI-capable system’s database can draw upon a host of variables to include weather, geography, target specifics and historical data such as which weapons have been used effectively against particular targets. Past warfare scenarios, including successes and failures can all be catalogued within the database against which new information can be compared. Decisions, results from particular problems and specific recommendations can then be made to commanders in position to attack.
Following the success of the experiment, Warmuth emphasized how crucial the network is to the Army’s future.
“The network is going to be foundational. We want to make sure we can have assured, reliable, resilient network underlying all of the systems we are using. As I think about the budget, I’m thinking that those are things we know we are going to have to make sure we have the resources for,” she said.
Initial elements of this cross-continental process were demonstrated last year, yet Van Den Bosch explained that this year at Project Convergence 21 warfighters operated with 20-times greater coverage.
“As compared to PC20, Low Earth Orbit constellation availability improved from minutes per day to near 24 hour coverage. Integrating LEO, Mid Earth Orbit and our traditional Geostationary Earth Orbit satellite capabilities increased network resiliency by providing multiple communications pathways,” an Army official said in a written statement.
Network resiliency and survivability is a key element of this, as the networking mesh builds in redundancy to ensure continued connectivity in the event that one node is destroyed, disabled or impaired. Otherwise disparate nodes are “aggregated,” Van Den Bosch said, “ so there were more options and pathways. We want to provide a resilient network so that if I lose a connection to one, I still have the ability to leverage a different one.”
Kris Osborn is 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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.