McLEAN, Va. — The U.S. Army simultaneously tested drones that are catapulted in midair or flung from the ground during its most recent Project Convergence networking experiment, blurring the line between what have been distinct domains.
At Project Convergence 22, spanning October and November, small uncrewed systems were “launched from wherever we wanted,” Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, the director of the Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team, said at a Feb. 8 event hosted by MITRE, which manages federally funded research and development centers.
“And if it was ground- or air-launched, hooah,” Rugen said. “They became a launched effect.”
So-called ALEs hurtle outward from larger aircraft, either crewed or uncrewed. They are meant to detect, disrupt, deceive or destroy and are considered a critical piece of the Army’s overhaul of its helicopter fleet. GLEs, simply put, are their ground-based counterpart, relying on vehicles or soldiers on foot.
Both efforts are still in their infancy. The key to success, though, Rugen told C4ISRNET, has been the right launcher technology, which he acknowledged “doesn’t sound very exciting.” But having “a modular effects launcher, we call it a MEL, that is very transportable across different combat vehicles, with a government-defined interface and standard that you build to, that has really been the secret sauce.”
The Army is pursuing options for both large and small launched-effects to support a variety of battlefield tasks, such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting. In 2020, the service awarded 10 small contracts worth a total of $29.75 million to mature technologies in the ALE realm, Defense News reported.
The systems are relatively cheap — by military standards — and can be floated into places too costly or dangerous to otherwise explore.
“It does what Army aviation’s always wanted to do. It does it from a position of standoff,” Rugen said. “We always want an unfair fight.”
After spending decades in the Middle East in an attempt to excise extremism and conduct counterinsurgency campaigns, the U.S. is now focusing on potential large-scale conflicts with China and Russia. The two world powers have established anti-access and area-denial infrastructure in an attempt to counter U.S. tactics and keep at bay weapons or forces that could overwhelm.
Rugen likened launched effects and their prospective advantages — distance and safety of operation, the potential to penetrate defenses — to the Hellfire missile, often associated with Apache attack helicopter or the remotely piloted Predator drone.
“When we had the Hellfire missile, that 8 kilometers was important to us; what was hunting us was at about 5.75 kilometers. We had a missile that would go 8, we were winning,” Rugen said. “Now what we’re seeing from the threat systems is we need to be much farther off.”
Rugen told C4ISRNET he was happy with the trials at Project Convergence 22, the Army’s contribution to the Pentagon’s connect-everything campaign, or Joint All-Domain Command and Control.
Launched assets were previously tinkered with during Project Convergence 21 and at the Edge 21 exercise, where sensors were used to collect and distribute real-time information.
“It’s too bad that we coined the air-launched effect, ALE kind of branding, early on, because really, it becomes a launched effect. And that launch can happen from a ground vehicle or an air vehicle,” Rugen said. “Both ground and air are working in concert. And I’ve been very, very pleased with the collaboration and the tech development from our scientists and engineers.”
In January, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced its Eaglet ALE flew for the first time, dropping off an Army-owned Gray Eagle Extended Range Unmanned Aircraft System at a demonstration in Utah. The president of the General Atomics division, David Alexander, in a statement at the time described Eaglet getting its wings as an “important milestone” for both the company and the Army.
“Eaglet is intended to be a low-cost, survivable UAS with the versatility to be launched from a Gray Eagle, rotary-wing aircraft, or ground vehicles,” Alexander said. “It enables extended reach of sensors and increased lethality while providing survivability for manned aircraft.”
The next iteration of Project Convergence, led by Army Futures Command, is expected in spring 2024.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.