Army leaders hope Project Convergence shows the service is more willing to abandon the customary hand-wringing over whether technology is completely mature, and instead jump into the fray to try and fail.
“Every one of these weapons systems, as they get anywhere close to a determination by Army leadership … we’re putting it in Convergence. It’s a much more effective means for operational tests.”
Perfection vs. progress
Project Convergence was meant to be hard, to challenge in the harshest of environments the systems and concepts that would be needed against sophisticated adversaries. It was so hot in the desert that aircraft tires blew up on the runway.
While the effort met and, in some cases, greatly exceeded expectations, it was wholly imperfect. In a small warehouse full of military leadership, reporters, foreign military counterparts, and civilian engineers, the Army put its tech to the test.
At the front of the room were eight large television screens: The top four showed livestreams of the action occurring on the range — mortar fires, drones flying overhead and the targets set to be destroyed.
Yet the real action was taking place on the four bottom screens, where observers could see the Tactical Assault Kit — a software system giving operators a common picture of what was happening on the range — and other advanced software applications. And below those screens were 10 Army operators controlling all of the action from behind their monitors.
Leaders focused on those 10 people up front that were simulating a tactical operation and a little less so on the screens. “The only screens that I really cared about were the lower ones that showed how they were moving the pieces from the battlefield.”
In other words, Project Convergence was not about the boom. It was not about hitting the targets.
Which is good. Because not all of them did. On that day, the Army missed two targets during live-fire demonstrations. In the first miss, a modified Gray Eagle UAV used another drone as a munitions mule. The primary Gray Eagle identified the threat, ordering the other drone to drop a glide munition on the target. The first Gray Eagle was supposed to guide that munition to the target over the Army’s tactical network — however, a lost network connection led to a miss.
In the other miss, an XM1113 projectile failed to explode on its target after being fired from the first prototype of the Army’s Extended Range Cannon, which has the capability to fire beyond 70 kilometers. “This was the first time we had the XM1113 firing targets with high explosives inside of it, instead of inert, with a currently fielded precision guidance kit, not the next long-range precision guidance kit. It didn’t work every time. It was accurate, but it didn’t go off every time.”
Networks aren’t built in a day
Over the course of the effort, the Army was able to shorten its sensor-to-shooter timeline from 20 minutes to 20 seconds by using emerging artificial intelligence algorithms, experimental tactical networks and space-based sensors. This introduced a new pipeline that takes sensor data, transforms it into targeting data and delivers it to the best possible shooter at blazing speeds.
“Taking information from space-based sensors and passing into ground- and air-based effectors seems really simple and happens super fast, but it was very complex and took us weeks of hard coding in order to get it done.
“It’s all about the ability to pass data, and if you can’t do that, a long-range cannon becomes interesting, but not really relevant." During the effort, “we had all kinds of problems. That’s why we were rewriting code and fixing stuff constantly. But it worked.
The network “was a plus and minus. It was the backbone of everything the Army was doing at Project Convergence, but “like everything else we brought, what we had, it wasn’t designed for this.”
The network used during the event is being designed for a tactical brigade, and not to operate in the context of Project Convergence in a constrained bandwidth environment. The network worked. It just took a tremendous amount of work to get it to work."
For example, the Army had a hard time getting the network to connect from ground assets to air assets, while ground-to-ground and air-to-air connectivity performed well.
The connectivity between ground and air was established — for the first time ever — through a mesh network of unmanned aircraft called Air-Launched Effects that were intended to serve as repeaters to extend connectivity beyond line of sight.
Some of the problems had to do with the conditions. “There were lots of days we couldn’t fly because of crosswinds. ”We’re continuing to refine the mesh network and increasing — really not necessarily the range but the throughput capacity — is probably where we need to go.”
There were also tests that surpassed expectations. With some systems, it was expected that “swivel chair” methods would be needed to manually input information from one system into another. “We were able to actually automate machine to machine, which we weren’t expecting to be able to do.”
Project Convergence was easily the Army’s — and perhaps the entire military’s — largest test of emerging AI capabilities to date. AI algorithms were used to speed up the sensor-to-shooter chain at every point. But perhaps the biggest star of the event was FIRES Synchronization to Optimize Responses in Multi-Domain Operations, or FIRESTORM.
“What is FIRESTORM? Simply put, it’s a computer brain that recommends the best shooter, updates the common operating picture with the current enemy situation and friendly situation, and admissions the effectors that we want to use to eradicate the enemy on the battlefield.”
Observers at Project Convergence were able to see FIRESTORM’s recommendation pop-ups in real time — often in the blink of an eye — allowing operators to rapidly review and approve the algorithm’s recommendations.
But the AI systems at play are still in development, and Army officials acknowledged they remain brittle.
While prepping for Project Convergence, the Army used more than 3.5 million images of opposing and friendly forces' tanks and vehicles to build a database of enough images in different contexts to train the algorithms needed for the exercise. “Every image you get to train an algorithm just makes that algorithm better.”
“Artificial intelligence is no different than a human being. "It needs a number of repetitions to be perfect. The difference is they’ll be faster and better because it’s a machine. But you still have to have hundreds if not thousands of these repetitions to make it perfect. "And you might have seen the fourth rep. Come back when there’s 400.”
Project Convergence pointed the Army in the direction it must go if it wants to shape a force for future conflict, but the effort also pushed the service toward a major cultural change.
“It’s OK to fail. We’ve done some touchpoints with soldiers, and soldiers aren’t used to failing and it actually drives them crazy when you put a piece of immature technology in their hands that doesn’t work exactly like they expect it to work.
“That’s part of the culture change: It’s OK. “You’re learning, growing and making better decisions, investments, as you continue to mature this technology. This is absolutely the way forward.”
Army has linked together experimental drones, super guns, ground robots and satellites in a massive test of its future warfare plans. The service mounted the first demonstration of Project Convergence, brought in some 34 fresh-out-of-the-lab technologies.
The goal: to show that these weapons and tools—linked and led by artificial intelligence—can allow humans to find a target, designate it as such, and strike it — from the air, from kilometers away, using any available weapon and in a fraction of the time it takes to execute that kill today.
It was an ambitious test that revealed how far Army leaders have come in their goal of networked warfare across the domains of air, land, space and cyberspace. It also provided a vivid picture of how much further the Army has to go.
The scenarios involved different phases of a land invasion. In the first phase, dubbed “Penetrate,” satellites in low Earth orbit detected enemy anti-air missile ground launchers. That info was passed to a ground processing station called the Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node, or TITAN, more than a thousand miles away.
The TITAN operator sent a target-data message to Yuma where a fire command was processed and sent to the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, or ERCA, the Army’s new 70-km super gun. Next, a scout helicopter — actually a surrogate for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, or FARA — located the command-and control-node of the enemy air defenses, a wheeled amphibious armored personnel carrier, using an object-detection AI dubbed Dead Center onboard the drone.
An Air Launched Effects drone, or ALE, launched from the helicopter, provided a floating mesh network beyond 50 km. An autonomously flying Grey Eagle drone swooped in at 300 feet — far below its normal operating floor of 10,000 feet or so — and hit the target with a Hellfire missile.
With some of the key targets out of the way, the second phase, dubbed “Disintegrate,” sought to dissolve the remainder of the adversary’s anti-aircraft capabilities.
Helicopters serving as surrogates for Future Vertical Lift aircraft and an ALE looked for other targets, passing their sensor data back through the mesh network. An artificial intelligence called FIRESTORM — short for or FIRES Synchronization to Optimize Responses in MDO , took in the data, mapped the battlefield, and generated recommendations for which weapon should hit which target.
The ERCA gun fired a round, hitting a multiple launch rocket system some 56 kilometers away. One Grey Eagle transmitted targeting data based on visual information — not GPS or laser designation — to another one, which attempted to hit the target with a GBU-69 glide bomb. But it’s unclear if the missile actually fired as the communication link was briefly lost. The target was not destroyed.
In the third and final phase, “Exploit”, manned and unmanned ground vehicles began to move into the area. Operators used Aided Target Recognition Software, or AiDTR, to find new targets like armored transport trucks. FIRESTORM tasked Next-Generation Combat Vehicles, or NGCVs (also played by surrogates in the exercise) to hit the targets. Another small drone called a Tarot, also with AiDTR, launched and detected enemy infantry fighting vehicles. FIRESTORM issued orders to suppress the enemy with mortars until they could be hit directly.
Operators in the NGCVs ordered unmanned ground vehicles to launch even smaller helicopter recon drones. As new enemies showed up, FIRESTORM sent recommendations about which weapon to employ.
The action was at times difficult to follow. Multiple things seemed to happen at once, in part by design. Some of the technologies displayed, such as the Grey Eagle’s low-altitude autonomous flying and the coordination among some of the drones, would have made for impressive demonstrations by themselves.
The Army may not be able to ever fail cheap. But it can fail cheaper. And it can derive greater reward for the effort. The Convergence demonstration bore out the premise of the project: data can be sensed from a wide variety of sources, fused, passed through machine intelligence, used to designate a target and then hit that target in a literal fraction of the time it takes the Army to execute those steps today, from 15 minutes down to less than one. The ability to do that will determine victory or defeat, life or death, in future conflicts.
The electronic “kill chain” that the Army is building to connect other services’ long-range sensors to its new long-range shooters is increasingly agnostic about which sensors and shooters you plug in. “The sensor and the shooter are unimportant. It’s the pathway. “Once the pathway was proven, it could be against any target with any shooter.”
1. Transform Air Ground Task Force Command and Control
2. Standardize the network by eliminating legacy systems, consolidating resources, and optimizing network operations
3. Complete transition to one unified warfighting network
4. Permits total force access to mission-relevant information regardless of location or time
5. Reduce costs, increase efficiency, and improve security
6. Ensure adherence to standardized permissions models, structures, and procedures across the range of military operations
7. Move Beyond Disparate network/segment architectures currently compromising operations and protection of vital information
8. Enforce a comprehensive network architecture with standards, controls, measurable performance, and consistent C2 services
9. Unify Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network domains by eliminating legacy networks, systems, and applications
10. Position force to operate in the Joint and Coalition environment, including future Joint network security capabilities
11. Implement a virtual solution for access and releasability of classified information with Coalition partners
12. Advance integration with host networks aboard ships/platforms
13. Identify critical information exchange requirements, i.e., eliminate the need for multiple network configurations
14. Establish Enterprise Service Desk supporting the full spectrum of warfighting and business missions
15. Enable individual and organizational mobility
16. Deliver accessible and survivable “fighting hole” C2 information
17. Decrease the MAGTF’s footprint, power, and lift requirements
18. Allow enterprise data to be shared and analyzed
19. Supports rapid deployment of mission critical applications/services
20. Reduce network engineering/provision lead times pursue mobility and operational flexibility
21. Move beyond Reliance on “build-from-scratch” networks and services impeding speed and tempo
22. Improve ability to rapidly access common applications/services capability
23. Create secure means to share data for analytics
24. Establish network capabilities delivering mobility, operational flexibility, and warm-start resources
25. Expand network capabilities incrementally to all tactical units
26. Establish and maintain application development standards, processes, and infrastructure that allow system capabilities to be delivered rapidly and efficiently
27. Provide application mobility, function, purpose, and sustainment at reduced costs while ensuring interoperability and compatibility
28. Enforce standard applications that are properly hosted, deployed, and interoperable across hardware, platforms, and missions
29. Allow for increased automation and analytics across enterprise to enable faster decision cycles
30. Move past chaotic environment of disparate systems and information sources counterproductive to mission success
31. Establish application standards improves performance lowers maintenance costs with unsustainable overhead
32. Streamline application development process improve ability to quickly innovate and adapt to mission needs
33. Standardize and automate application build, hosting, and deployment
34. Migrate tactical and business applications to Enterprise Information Technology Services
35. Standardize capabilities of regionally aligned Installation Processing Nodes to increase effective global access to secure information
36. Provision a Comply-To-Connect capability that greatly enhances network performance and security
37. Facilitate single identity via a common user experience across the force with no distinction between garrison and tactical environments
38. Align network capabilities for systems at risk of failing, posing security vulnerabilities across the force
39. Create automated ability to ensure network security compliance, e.g.,“see” end-to-end or push security patches across the enterprise
40. Standardize Tactical Processing Nodes and Tactical Entry Points
41. Provide access to applications and information at tactical edge to supports execution
42. Consolidate and onboard data and application requirements from non-core data centers to a common hosting platform
43. Deliver resiliency and redundancy across the force to mitigate adversarial use of technologies disrupting and degrading C2 capability
44. Reduce electronic signatures
45. Alleviate overreliance on highly vulnerable space-based capabilities
46. Increase training for disconnected, intermittent, low-bandwidth environments
47. Enforce resilience and survivability performance parameters on C2 network architecture and systems
48. Incorporate radio waveforms designed for operations in a contested
49. Utilize emerging technologies for more survivable systems, e.g., free space optics, network foraging, and signal emission control
50. Train in information-contested/denied operating environments with realistic threats and operational challenges