The U.S. military recently carried out an air-ground live-fire operation, connecting drones, computer systems, helicopters, armored combat vehicles and artillery weapons to one another in real time. This networked warfare allowed them to find, track and destroy enemy air defenses, infantry carriers and tanks all in a matter of seconds.
The coordinated attacks were done at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., during Project Convergence 2020, a combat exercise intended to conduct AI and network-enabled attack operations in preparation for high-speed, high-risk major power warfare.
There were many elements to the networking connectivity, including cloud-based computer systems and satellites, yet the majority of the data exchanges between weapons platforms was done using software programmable radios. These single-channel commercial devices, Army engineers explain, were woven into the sensor systems of every platform to create a common, interoperable information exchange pipeline.
Targeting data traveled through a specific progression and sequence, often going from forward-operating mini-drones, to larger drones down to ground-based, AI-empowered computer systems before then being paired with the right attack weapon by a human commander.
On the ground in Yuma, Army engineers further explained the networking process to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, saying that the mesh networking and information exchange is done with single-channel software programmable radios.
“This allows us to integrate radios and sensors into every single platform whether it is a Gray Eagle or NGCV (Next Generation Combat Vehicle). We were able to link all the sensors together using tactical gateways. We learned the configuration and networking can be done but we are going to continue to evaluate waveforms,” an Army engineer told McCarthy at Yuma.
Using an AI-enabled system called FIRESTORM and this enhanced radio networking, the Army has now condensed the entire sensor-to-shooter “Kill Web” process from as much as twenty minutes down to as little as twenty-seconds in some cases, senior developers explained.
“When the UAV was flying, it had an automated target recognition capability to determine the target. It then sends that information across the network. What FIRESTORM does is it then pairs the right shooter to the right target and makes the determination of which weapon is the safest and best. It is not engaging or pulling the trigger, it is up to the human operator to say ‘you fire that one’ and you fire that one. The network does all of this because you need to feed that data quickly,” Maj. Gen. John George, Commanding General of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, a division of Army Futures Command that oversees the Army Research Laboratory, told The National Interest.
George explained that all of the data is sent through software programmable radio, which Army engineers have configured into every sensor to expedite the transfer of data.
“We call this S&T (science & technology) in the dirt,” he added.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.