Longer-Range Missiles & More AI: Project Convergence 2021

 In Land, U.S. Army, Air, Forces & Capabilities
Army photo

Lockheed’s prototype Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) fires from an Army HIMARS launcher truck

WASHINGTON: The Army just wrapped up its first Project Convergence exer­cise in the Yuma Desert, but it’s already wrestling with a poten­tial prob­lem for next year: Yuma Proving Ground’s 2,000 square miles of restrict­ed air­space may be too small.

It’s hard to find a better metaphor for the scale of the Army’s ambi­tions. The ser­vice aims to grow the range of its weapons – and its role in future wars with Russia or China – to strike targets once reachable only by airpower.

The spe­cif­ic issue? The chief of Army Futures Command, Gen. John “Mike” Murray, wants to include the new Precision Strike Missile now in pro­to­typ­ing to replace the Reagan-era ATACMs. “PrSM mis­sile, we haven’t shot it at its max range yet,” he told reporters. “If every­thing goes well – knock on wood – it will be part of Project Convergence next year, with a 500-plus kilo­me­ter shot [310+ miles]. Can’t do that here.”

Army photo

Gen. John “Mike” Murray (left) speaks to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy (right)

After Murray’s Wednesday press con­fer­ence with top Army lead­ers, I fol­lowed up with his direc­tor for Long Range Precision Fires, artillery Brig. Gen. John Rafferty. This year’s Project Convergence includ­ed test shots at Yuma from a pro­to­type armored how­itzer called Enhanced Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA), which can use rocket-boost­ed shells to reach over 60 km (about 40 miles), twice as far as cur­rent cannon. Rafferty also took the ERCA vehi­cle for a test drive.

“Our goal for Project Convergence 21 is to get PrSM involved,” he told me, “and then also poten­tial­ly some of the strate­gic sys­tems” – such as the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, whose clas­si­fied range is likely thou­sands of miles —  “whether it’s in an actual [launch] or a vir­tu­al par­tic­i­pa­tion.”

Even the largest mil­i­tary instal­la­tion in the con­ti­nen­tal US, White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, is only about a hundred miles end to end. Longer test shots are gen­er­al­ly fired over the ocean, using ranges like Kwajalein in the Pacific. But the point of Project Convergence, the very reason for the name, is to put togeth­er mul­ti­ple types of tac­tics and tech­nol­o­gy, from drones to robots, and test how they work togeth­er as a com­bined-arms force – and land units can’t walk on water.

Army photo

The prototype XM1299 Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) armored howitzer being assembled at Picatinny Arsenal, NJ.

For next year’s exer­cise, Murray sug­gest­ed the Army might piece togeth­er mul­ti­ple ranges and exer­cise areas that aren’t con­tigu­ous, such as Yuma and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California – “which comes with all kinds of prob­lems with the FAA.” While he didn’t elab­o­rate, pre­sum­ably the idea would be to test short-range tac­ti­cal fire­pow­er at one loca­tion, then fire long-range mis­siles in sup­port from anoth­er site, which would require FAA clear­ance to use the inter­ven­ing air­space.

The good news is the Army’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems can trans­mit tar­get­ing data over these dis­tances – despite not originally being designed to do so. That’s some­thing the ser­vice proved this fall, with satel­lites in orbit send­ing imagery and other intel­li­gence to a sim­u­lat­ed the­ater head­quar­ters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, which then relayed spe­cif­ic tar­gets to weapons to Yuma, over 1,300 miles south.

In fact, Rafferty told me, the elec­tron­ic “kill chain” that the Army’s 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.

During Project Convergence, for exam­ple, the artillery corps’ AFATDS soft­ware was able to accept sensor data from Marine Corps F-35B fighters, Rafferty said: “That may have been a first.” The ones and zeros were relayed machine to machine to machine though var­i­ous dig­i­tal inter­me­di­aries, with­out a human having to man­u­al­ly re-enter data from one system to the next, the stan­dard workaround used in mil­i­tary com­mand posts today.

Other links in Project Convergence did require human inter­ven­tion, notably man­u­al­ly enter­ing zeroes to change eight-digit Target Intelligence Data (TIDAT) coor­di­nates used by satel­lite ground ter­mi­nals into the 10-digit format used by AFATDS. The Army aims to fix that for next year – and also to roll out a new arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence system specif­i­cal­ly for the artillery.

Project Yuma this fall and an earlier exercise this February in Germany tested an AI called Prometheus, which analy­ses satel­lite data, spots enemy forces, and sends tar­get­ing data to shoot­ers. But the artillery corps is work­ing on a com­ple­men­tary AI called SHOT (Synchronized High-Optempo Targeting), which will take tar­get­ing data from Prometheus and other sources, match it against the commander’s pri­or­i­ties and an Attack Guidance Matrix stat­ing which types of tar­gets are best attacked by which types of weapons. Then SHOT will output an auto­mat­ed call-for-fire, some­thing miss­ing from this year’s exer­cis­es.

The Army had planned to use SHOT this year – in some brief­in­gs it even sound­ed as if it had done so – but it turned out there wasn’t suf­fi­cient fund­ing avail­able to com­plete the pro­to­type in time. Experts from the SHOT team worked on the exer­cise to learn what the new tac­tics and weapons required, Rafferty said, and the soft­ware should be ready next year, run­ning on the ADV ground ter­mi­nal that receives intel­li­gence data from satel­lites.

“We want all the intel­li­gence we can get,” Rafferty said. “We want to access all the sen­sors that we can get.” But the Army’s learn­ing it doesn’t need to over­load the net­work – and sol­diers’ brains – by send­ing every­one every piece of data. Instead, the AI needs to smart enough to send each user only as much infor­ma­tion as they need: While an intel­li­gence ana­lyst might need high-res pic­tures of the target, for exam­ple, a can­noneer might just need the right coor­di­nates to shoot at.

“The infor­ma­tion needs to go to the right com­mand post at the right time and in the right level of fideli­ty,” Rafferty told me. “We’ve got to respect the network, and we can’t over­whelm it with every­thing.”

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