Imagine an F-35 stealth fighter jet using its electro-optical targeting system to find enemy ground targets, including processing otherwise separated sensor data. The F-35 could then establish target specifics and use radio datalinks to send that targeting information to nearby Apache helicopters and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rockets.
In this scenario, the target is destroyed in a matter of twenty to thirty seconds, eliminating the enemy armored vehicle asset before its crew can respond. The attacking force is simply faster than the enemy’s decision cycle, winning the combat engagement.
This example of future warfighting, offered by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, encapsulates the intended conceptual vision for the Army’s massive 2020 Project Convergence campaign, a multi-year integrated modernization program designed to chart the Army’s transformation into a new generation of warfare.
“It’s expeditionary warfare, connecting any sensor to any shooter. The goal is to bring all war engagement information together through command and control and synchronize data to get it to the right assets,” McCarthy said, while en route to a September 23 exercise at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona.
The exercise was live fire and in real time, intended to closely replicate the kinds of high end warfare conditions expected in coming years, using Gray Eagle Drones, new Scout-Attack helicopters, surrogate new armored combat vehicles, new 70km-range artillery cannons and ground and air-launched groups of mini-drones called Air Launched Effects (ALEs) to extend mission scope, targeting and forward aerial surveillance.
Drawing upon weapons-mounted sensors, high bandwidth radio datalinks, precision-guided weapons and an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled software system called FIRESTORM, an interconnected meshed network of otherwise disconnected combat nodes found and destroyed enemy targets such as T-72 tanks, SA-22 Air Defenses and BMP combat vehicles.
The combat scenarios included a wide spanning, yet closely networked group of combat assets, including artillery shots on SA-22 enemy air defenses from 40km away, helicopter-cued Gray Eagle drones working in tandem with mini-drone ALEs to destroy enemy armored personnel carriers and the use of AI-empowered technology to identify 120mm mortars as the best options to kill an enemy BMP armored infantry carrier.
The events were not a simulation. They were not wargames or preliminary assessments. They were live, actual combat events happening in real time and firing live ammunition. Gray Eagle drones destroyed enemy tanks with HELLFIRE Missiles and artillery cannons fired 155mm Excalibur rounds.
“This is real,” Mcarthy told The National Interest following the live fire demo. The development does appear quite significant, as the Army has been working on technology, weapons and networking for many years to come close to this kind of vision. As far back as the Army’s Future Combat System effort close to twenty-years ago, the service has been pursuing technologies able to network an entire force.
Now, helicopters, drones, artillery cannons, armored vehicles and command and control centers form a synergized meshed network of combat assets that can connect multiple sensors and shooters with fast-moving AI analytical systems to successfully form what senior leaders call a “kill web.” Finding, targeting and killing enemy targets, all while humans decide about the use of lethal force, can now be done in seconds.
“They moved info in seconds, the only thing that took two minutes was getting the HELLFIRE off the rails,” McCarthy said.
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.