WASHINGTON — Partnering helicopters and unmanned aircraft just a few years ago meant that a pilot could control a drone to fly ahead to conduct reconnaissance. Maybe it meant a pilot could control payloads or even the weapon systems on that drone.
But at Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, this month, manned-unmanned teaming took on a far more advanced meaning.
The Army’s Future Vertical Lift team rolled into the service’s weeks-long “campaign of learning” with 19 semi truck trailers and almost 200 people, Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of the Army’s FVL modernization efforts, told Defense News in a Sept. 22 interview.
The effort brings together future weapons and capabilities envisioned for a 2030s battlefield against near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China. It includes using a machine learning and artificial intelligence-enabled battle management system that is in development.
Rugen said he was “very, very proud” to see technology at the event mature to the point that allowed for data to be pushed across networks “faster than we’ve done in the past” through a tight-knit kill chain that included space, air and ground assets underpinned by Assured Position, Navigation and Timing (APNT) and an advanced network.
The team had 127 technical objectives it wanted to meet through 11 use cases and the three mission threads.
The breadth of the effort reflects that the Army is at a critical juncture when it comes to modernizing its fleet. The service is attempting to develop and field both a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) as well as a variety of Air-Launched Effects (ALE) capabilities along with a modular open system architecture that makes it easier to upgrade and modernize as time goes on. Leaders want all of this by 2030.
The next level of algorithmic warfare
A year ago, the Army’s Architecture, Automation, Autonomy and Interfaces capability, or A3I, was put to the test at China Lake, California. In that effort, an operator with a tablet in the back of an MH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter took control of a Gray Eagle drone and tasked it to fire a small, precision-glide munition at an enemy target located on the ground. At the last second, a higher level threat was detected and the munition was rapidly redirected toward a different threat, taking it out within seconds.
At Project Convergence, the final shot of the campaign came from a soldier on the ground taking control of a Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) munition surrogate (a Hellfire missile) on a Gray Eagle — representing a FARA — and firing on the target. This takes critical seconds out of the operation as the pilot of the aircraft wouldn’t have to focus on trying to locate the target himself, aiming and firing the missile.
At China Lake, the Army was able to use automation to reroute the Gray Eagle around poor weather. This year the aircraft were avoiding threat weapon systems, Rugen said. And while the Dynetics GBU-69 small glide munition used last year was inert, this time the Army used live rounds.
The Army also used an open system architecture that was flexible enough for payloads and capabilities to be swapped in out of its A3I Gray Eagles without having to rely on the original equipment manufacturer to do it, Rugen highlighted.
During the first mission thread, which focused on the penetration phase laid out in the Army’s Multidomain Operations warfighting concept, aircraft partnered with space-based assets, APNT, and LRPF capabilities to locate, then degrade and destroy enemy assets modeled after the Russian Pantsir air defense systems and other weapons.
The ALE pushed ingested data forward through the network to get it to the right shooters, whether that would be an Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) system on the ground or a Gray Eagle or another ALE.
During the exercise, the team launched six ALEs “flooding the zone with our drones for the first time and we did that multiple times over,” Rugen said.
Flooding the zone brought a variety of capabilities to the overall force during the three phases of operations.
First, the Army was able to extend the ALE capability out to almost 62 kilometers, which provides deep standoff for manned aircraft like FARA.
“For a division commander,” Rugen said, “that’s just transforming his or her battlefield geometry.”
The ALEs performed both the reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting acquisition mission and worked as a mesh network to extend the battlefield. Two ALEs were truck launched and four were air launched.
“We did prove we could launch up to 80 knots forward speed on our FARA surrogate aircraft,” Rugen said.
The team was also able to recover all of its ALEs from the operation using the Flying Launch and Recovery System (FLAReS).
Rather than letting the drones belly land in the sand or on a runway, which would result in damage, FLAReS has a hook on the edge of the wing that catches the ALE’s wing in flight. “It’s been wonderful to see that innovation,” Rugen said.
In a classified operation related to the penetration phase of battle, an ALE dropped off a Gray Eagle at an operationally relevant altitude for the first time, Rugen noted.
In the dis-integrate mission thread, which aims to destroy and disrupt subcomponents of enemy capability such as command and control systems and intelligence capabilitiesas well as other critical nodes, the ALEs helped refine targeting information in a GPS-denied environment and passed it back to the ERCA system for long-range shots.
In that phase, a Gray Eagle, serving as a “munitions mule,” flew outside of the enemy weapon engagement zone, and another aircraft took control of a sensor-enabled munition deployed from the Gray Eagle.
In the third mission phase, where the goal is to exploit freedom of maneuver gained in the penetrate and dis-integrate phases in order to defeat enemy objectives, the air assets and Next-Generation Combat Vehicles were able to pass information back and forth using an internally developed system called Firestorm that works as the machine-to-machine brain.
During the phase, the team was able to demonstrate the ability to automatically route the engagement, Rugen said. This means the aircraft or vehicle was able to ingest data and then the machine automatically sets up its route to engage the target with no involvement from the pilot.
“Keeping the aviator out of it was the ingenious thing we were able to do,” Rugen said.
Project Convergence also wasn’t just about the technology but the tactics, techniques and procedures through which the Army worked, according to Rugen. “We’re not just hitting the technology button here,” he said. “Some of it is the advanced ingress techniques against our pacing threats.”
Overall, the interoperability between various battlefield capabilities from the ground all the way to space was an achievement, according to Rugen. "I’m not saying it’s flawless, but we are not in our stove pipes and it’s made us, at times, uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable is not necessarily bad.
“We definitely had to converge because we were forced to, and there was some forcing to it, but it’s been great,” he added.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.