"Attacking at Speed": Army Project Convergence & Breakthrough Lightning-Fast War
photo by Kris Osborn: Howitzer artillery cannon at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz. Project Convergence
Warrior Video Above: Army Scientist Explains AI-Human Brain Sensing
by Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington, D.C.) Gray Eagle drones were armed with HELLFIRE missiles and GBU-69 glide bombs, 155mm artillery weapons fired rounds 60km to destroy SA-22 enemy air defenses and armored ground combat vehicles directly hit multiple T-72 tanks during the Army’s Project Convergence 2020.
The real story, however, according to senior Army leaders attending the service’s transformational combat experiment, was about data sharing, networked targeting and a cutting edge AI system called FIRESTORM.
“The bullet flying through the air and exploding is interesting, but that is not what is compelling about Project Convergence. It is everything that happens before the trigger is pulled. We did not come out here for a precision-fires exercise, what we came out here to do is increase the speed of information between sensing the target and passing that information to the effector,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told reporters Sept. 23 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz.
FIRESTORM uses advanced computer algorithms to gather radio data link feeds, video stream data, navigational and terrain specifics, weather conditions, target coordinates and precisely identified enemy location information. FIRESTORM then uses AI enabled computer processing to perform near real time data analytics and compare all of these variables against a vast or seemingly limitless database. The various information streams are pooled together and analyzed in relation to one another to organize the data and identify the optimal weapon or "effector" needed for that particular target.
“FIRESTORM is a computer brain that recommends the best shooter, updates the common operating picture and enemy and friendly situations. It “missions” the effectors that we want to eradicate the enemy on the battlefield. As enemy targets were identified on the battlefield, FIRESTORM quickly paired those targets with the best shooter in position to put effects on this,” Coffman said.
FIRESTORM can in part arrive at analytical conclusions in a mere instant, by weighing new information against previously compiled information. Machine learning happens when AI enabled databases immediately assimilate new information that is entirely different than what is in the database. The pace at which this new information is discerned, analyzed and integrated comprises the fundamental value added quality of AI.
Perhaps certain weapons such as artillery were proven effective for a certain range and target composition in those particular weather conditions, at that particular altitudes, with those particular defenses in that and terrain configuration? The computer will analyze all of these variables both individually and in relation to one another against its database and pair the right weapon for the particular target engagement. This entire process can now take place in seconds, representing an exponential leap beyond previously achieved benchmarks of roughly 20minutes.
“This is happening faster than any human could execute,” Coffman said.
However, the system must be adaptable to new enemy threats. Once enemies encounter certain systems, they of course immediately move to counter them, therefore requiring developers to expedite quick improvements.
"We need code writers who will need to change algorithms to adjust to new threats. We can't wait 24 hours, we will have to change instantaneously to targets. We need to make decisions at speed and get ahead of the enemies decision cycle,” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Director Army G3/5/7 told reporters.
Flynn further explained this “need for speed” in the context of the well known Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) process which gathers information, distills and organizes it before sending carefully determined data to decision makers. The entire process, long underway for processing things like drone video feeds for years, has now been condensed into a matter of seconds, in part due to AI platforms like FIRESTORM. Advanced algorithms can, for instance, autonomously sort through and observe hours of live video feeds, identify moments of potential significance to human controllers and properly send or transmit the often time-sensitive information.
"In the early days we were doing PED away from the front lines, now it's happening at the tactical edge. Now we need writers to change the algorithms,” Flynn explained.
“Three years ago it was books and think tanks talking about AI. We did it today,” McCarthy said.
Taking place at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, Project Convergence involved live-fire war experiments aligned in three distinct phases, intended to help the Army cultivate its emerging modern Combined Arms Maneuver strategy. Through carefully coordinated attack maneuvers, the force sought to hit and disable the outer defensive perimeter of an enemy system such as its air defenses.
Second, as explained by PC20 coordinator Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, was a “disintegration phase” wherein operational aircraft including advanced helicopters, drones and mini-drone Air Launched Effects, found and attacked the enemies long-range precision fires apparatus. The third and final phase, as explained by Coffman, included the use of armored vehicle ground force fires to directly engage with, fire upon and destroy enemy assets and formations.
“This follows the multi-domain operations concept of how we plan to fight,” Coffman said.
In another scenario Next-Generation Combat Vehicles (NGCVs) attacked and destroyed an enemy BMP armored vehicles. Represented by surrogate vehicles such as Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the NGCV sensors sent targeting data through the artificial intelligence (AI)-empowered FIRESTORM system to optimize the mode of weapons attack and destroy T-72 tanks. Drawing upon assessments made through FIRESTORM, the NGCVs were directed to engage in direct fire missions to destroy several BMP Army reconnaissance vehicles.
While the nearly instantaneous target acquisition process is greatly expedited by the AI-capable FIRESTORM system, the kill web also hinges upon the rapid work of skilled scientists and engineers who, as Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy described it, work to “rewrite software code in expeditionary combat.”
The emergence of this kind of information-driven combat is one big reason why the Army is working quickly to recruit and retain a new generation of scientists, engineers and computer experts. The Army has set up a software laboratory and expanded work with academic institutions such as Carnegie Mellon to create specific, high-tech Masters programs for promising young aspiring scientists.
“We need code writers who will need to change algorithms to adjust to new threats. We can’t wait 24 hours, we will have to change instantaneously to target,” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Director, G-3/5/7, told reporters.
The Army is already moving out on new plans for Project Convergence 2021, an experiment intended to draw upon the Air Force and even international allies to network and even wider sphere of air and ground weapons.
“Next year we will have PRsM (Precision Strike Missile) and F-35,” McCarthy added.
While the F-35 will take on a larger role next year, McCarthy did refer to recent exercises connecting ground forces with Marine Corps F-35Bs as part of an assessment of multi-domain combat ops intended to synergize air-ground targeting, informational exchange and attack operations.
McCarthy explained that once weapons systems reach the right level of technical maturity, they will quickly be added to the Army’s convergence process. The Army’s Integrated Battle Command System (IBCS), a networked system of air defense sensors and radars, recently went through successful Limited User Tests and will likely be used next year.
Future Project Convergence experiments, Flynn added, will further explore how new convergence technologies and tactics will apply to larger brigade formation. Flynn explained that the conceptual basis for the convergence process rests upon three main tenets, including force posture and terrain, Multi Domain operations and convergence.
How fast might this “converged” kill web see combat? Possibly soon. While McCarthy emphasized the importance of pursuing the necessary developmental process, he did say that, based on current performance, some elements of the system could be fast-tracked on an expedited, urgent basis—should war break out. He cited the Pentagon’s lightning speed to urgently fast-track new systems to war with the Predator for Kosovo and the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles for Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have not seen this level of energy since the 1980s with AIRLAND battle,” 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.