At Project Convergence, the US Army experienced success and failure — and it’s happy about both
YUMA PROVING GROUND, Arizona - During the U.S. Army's high-profile test of new technology in the Arizona desert last month, service managers packed explosives into a prototype Extended Range Cannon as part of a bold experiment.
The cannon had the ability to fire over 70 kilometers and the XM1113 projectile was customized with a precision guidance kit (not the next long-range precision guidance kit that will be incorporated later).
"It didn't go off every time," said Brig. General John Rafferty, who oversees long-range precision fire modernization, said of the weapon in an interview with Defense News on Oct. 2. "It was a bit disappointing when there was a hole in the ground right next to the target because it didn't explode."
The XM1113 incident was similar to what many service leaders at Project Convergence experienced when new concepts and modernization efforts were scrutinized. Sometimes army officials got excited about the advancement of new technology. In other cases they saw room for improvement.
"This is an important step forward in transforming the US Army for the next 40 years," said Army Chief of Staff James McConville while attending project convergence at the Yuma Proving Ground.
"This may not be the main thing Army Futures Command is working on," added General Mike Murray, chief of command. But "this is perhaps the most important thing the Army is doing today," outside of ongoing global operations.
The service is shifting its focus from counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East to an era of great power competition - an era in which the United States must be ready to face advanced adversaries in high-end conflicts in air, land, sea, space - and cyber domains.
Army leaders hope the project convergence shows that the service is more willing to give up the usual manual labor about whether the technology is fully mature and instead jump into combat to try, even publicly, to fail.
"Any one of these weapon systems, as it comes close to being determined by the army command ... we're putting it into convergence," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters ahead of the event. "It's a much more effective tool for operational testing."
Perfection versus progress
Convergence of projects should be difficult, the army leaders said, in order to challenge the systems and concepts needed to hold their own against sophisticated opponents such as Russia and China in the harshest of environments.
The Army chose Yuma Proving Ground for the new experimental exercise because of its "harsh conditions", the large area of operation and the "brutal" temperatures of up to 120 degrees, said the command of the exercise, Brigadier General Ross Coffman, on September 23 Yuma: "We knew that we could fulfill our mission almost anywhere on earth if we can fulfill it here."
It was so hot in the Arizona desert that airplane tires exploded on the runway.
Although the effort paid off, and in some cases far exceeded expectations, it was completely imperfect.
The service flew a group of reporters to Yuma on the final day to see firsthand the impact of its efforts. In a small warehouse full of military leaders, reporters, foreign military colleagues, civil engineers, and lawmakers, the army put its technology to the test.
There were eight large TV screens in front of the room: the top four showed live streams of the actions on the route - mortar fires, drones flying over us and the targets to be destroyed.
However, the real action took place on the four lower screens, where observers could see the Tactical Assault Kit - a software system that gives operators a high-level picture of what was going on on the line - and other advanced software applications. And beneath those screens were 10 army operators who controlled all the action behind their monitors.
"I focused on the 10 people simulating a tactical operation and a little less on the screens," McCarthy told reporters the day after the exercise. "The only screens that really mattered to me were the lower ones that showed them moving the pieces of the battlefield."
In other words, Project Convergence was not about the boom. It wasn't about achieving the goals.
What is good. Because not all of them did.
On that day, the army missed two targets in live fire demonstrations. On the first failure, a modified Gray Eagle UAV used a different drone than ammunition mule. The primary gray eagle recognized the threat and ordered the other drone to drop glide ammunition at the target. The first Gray Eagle was supposed to target these ammunition through the Army's tactical network. However, a broken network connection resulted in a failure, Murray confirmed to Defense News.
On the other failure, an XM1113 projectile failed to explode on its target after being fired from the Army's first prototype of the Army's Extended Range Cannon, which can shoot beyond 70 kilometers.
"This was the first time we had the XM1113 targets with high explosives instead of an inert one with a precision guide kit currently in use, not the [next] long-range precision guide kit," Rafferty said. "It didn't work every time. It was accurate, but it didn't start every time."
"The bullets that fly through the air and explode are interesting," said Coffman. "But that's not what convinces project convergence. It's all that happens before the lanyard is pulled, the trigger is pulled. We didn't come here for a precision fire drill. We came here for the speed of information between captures of the goal and the transfer of this information to the effector. "
By creating a complex network of systems, the army has dramatically shortened its chain of kills. And the service switched the architecture from PowerPoint to a living and breathing ability in less than eight months.
Scientific and technological efforts that were only "an idea two months ago in a laboratory in a location in an air-conditioned building" were incorporated into the exercise, Murray said.
"I can't emphasize enough that yesterday exceeded all expectations I could have had. It was an experiment. It was a full-scale experiment for combined arms operations, and the fact that they compressed the time ... was incredible," McCarthy said .
Networks are not built in a day
As the effort progressed, the Army was able to cut its sensor-to-rifle time from 20 minutes to 20 seconds using emerging artificial intelligence algorithms, experimental tactical networks, and space-based sensors. This introduced a new pipeline that records sensor data, converts it into target data and delivers it at breakneck speed to the best possible shooter.
"Taking information from space-based sensors and transferring it to ground and airborne effectors seems really simple and very fast, but it was very complex and it took us weeks of hard coding to achieve this," said Coffman.
Murray added, "It's all about the ability to pass data. If you can't, a long-range cannon will be interesting but not really relevant."
During the effort, “we had all sorts of problems. Because of that, we kept rewriting the code and fixing issues, ”he continued. "But you know? It worked.
The network "was a plus and a minus," he explained. It was the backbone of everything the Army did at Project Convergence, but "like everything else we brought, what we had, it wasn't designed for that," he added.
The network used during the event was designed for a tactical brigade and not intended to operate as part of project convergence in a bandwidth-limited environment. “The network worked. It just took a tremendous amount of work to get it to work. "
For example, according to Murray, the Army had difficulty connecting the network of ground-to-air cargo while the ground-to-ground and air-to-air connectivity performed well.
Ground-to-air connectivity was first established through a mesh network of unmanned aircraft called Air-Launched Effects, designed to act as repeaters to extend connectivity beyond line of sight.
Some of the problems were related to the conditions. "There were many days when we couldn't fly because of cross winds," said Murray. "I think we will probably have to go further to further refine and increase [the mesh network] - not necessarily the range, actually, but the throughput capacity."
There were also tests that exceeded expectations. Some systems were expected to require "swivel chair" methods of manually entering information from one system to another. "We were actually able to automate machine-to-machine, which we didn't expect," said Murray.
Project convergence was easily the armed forces - and perhaps the armed forces as a whole - greatest test to date of emerging AI capabilities. AI algorithms were used to speed up the sensor-to-contactor chain at each point. Perhaps the biggest star of the event, however, was the FIRES synchronization to optimize the answers in multi-domain operation or FIRESTORM.
"What is FIRESTORM? Simply put, it's a computer brain that recommends the best shooters, updates the general operational picture with the current enemy situation and friendly situation, and allows the effectors we want to use to exterminate the enemy on the battlefield, ”said Coffman.
Project Convergence observers were able to see FIRESTORM's recommendation pop-ups in real time - often in the blink of an eye - so operators could quickly review and approve the algorithm's recommendations.
However, the AI systems are still in development, and Army officials admitted that they remain brittle.
While preparing for project convergence, the army used more than 35,000 images of the tanks and vehicles of the opposing and friendly forces to create a database with enough images in different contexts to train the algorithms required for the exercise. "Any picture you get to train an algorithm only improves that algorithm," said Murray.
"Artificial intelligence is no different than a human," added McCarthy. "It takes a set of reps to be perfect. The difference is, because it's a machine, they're faster and better. But you still have to do hundreds, if not thousands of those reps to get it perfect do.
"And you may have seen the fourth iteration. Come back when it's 400."
Project convergence pointed the army in the direction it must go in order to form an armed force for future conflicts, but the efforts also drove the service towards a major cultural shift.
"It's okay to fail," said Murray. "I've made some touches with soldiers, and soldiers aren't used to failure, and it actually drives them crazy when you put a piece of immature technology in their hands that doesn't work exactly the way they expect it to.
"That's part of the culture change: it's fine," he said. "You learn, grow, and make better decisions, investments, as you develop this technology. I think that's absolutely the way to go."
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