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Army assesses emerging tech to meet critical gaps

October 25, 2016 (Photo Credit: Airbus)
Part of the Army's planning to adapt to an increasingly contested and congested battle space involving a wide array of actors involves testing and evaluating how emerging technologies integrate with units. This was the thinking behind the Army Warfighting Assessment (AWA) 17.1, which began earlier this month.

Maj. Gen. Terry McKenrick, commander of the Army's Brigade Modernization Command, told C4ISRNET that AWA exercises seek to meet three key objectives or focuses — training for joint and multinational partners, improving interoperability with them, and continuing the assessment of concepts and capabilities for future forced development for the Army.

The exercise came out of the Network Integration Evaluations (NIE), which are focused on fielding and developing the mission command network out to the divisions and brigades across the Army over a number of years. McKenrick said the NIEs were somewhat of a restrictive environment as they don’t include joint or multinational partners given that their capabilities might be different and thus skew test results.

Understanding that the Army's joint deployments will always be relevant, McKenrick said they had to devise a training exercise with allies, in this case one focused more on innovation as opposed to integration, test and evaluation, as is the case with NIE. AWA, by contrast, will be examining innovative technologies and how they interoperate with units and partners in scenarios.

With participation from industry and centers of excellence, early developmental prototypes and systems can be tested by the Army as well as joint and multinational partners in a safe, yet operationally realistic environment to gain solder feedback in early stages of product development with the hopes of informing the requirements process.

“Ideally, this will expedite the acquisition cycle and develop these capabilities correctly, earlier, so we don’t find out about it at a final test and evaluation,” McKenrick said. “Overall this will increase innovation of the whole Army.”

McKenrick said there are about 6,000 service members participating with I Corps whose headquarters is on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, with the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade. The UK, Canada and Australia are also participating with a battalion of Danish troops underneath the UK brigade and an Italian Airborne battalion participating from overseas, McKenrick said, calling this a distributed exercise.

Participants will be implementing 41 concepts and capabilities designed to meet 20 “war fighting challenges,” which McKenrick said are identified as “the capability gaps that we have in our Army between our current force and the future army that we know we need to be able to shape the security environment, deter conflict and win our nation’s wars in the future.”

He said some of the 41 concepts and capabilities being examined are robotics and autonomous ground systems that include cargo transportation, vehicle platforms and remotely operated weapons systems for vehicle platforms. This particular capability, McKenrick explained, provides an opportunity for a small unit — a platoon- or company-level operation — to be able to maneuver an unmanned autonomous robotics system with a weapon on the platform while maintaining optics during an assault. These systems are armored to protect the system and they provide direct fire capabilities to maneuver forces as to allow the rest of the unit more freedom to maneuver. This capability, he said, will allow the Army to reduce the number of soldiers on the battlefield and decrease the risk to soldiers that would be under fire by using that remote weapons system capability.

Also in the ground robotics and autonomous space is a leader-follower technology that allows for an unmanned ground vehicle to follow behind a manned lead vehicle and stay within a certain distance.

Micro unmanned aerial vehicles weighing around 3 ounces that provide a local, tactical-level reconnaissance capability are also being considered.

Soldiers are assessing other expeditionary mission command capabilities focused on hardware convergence to reduce hardware to thin client-application-based systems focused on secure and unsecure wireless.

Additionally, counter UASs utilizing repurposed systems for detecting, identifying and defeating enemy UASs systems are also being examined.

McKenrick noted there are two factors involved in the development of future concepts and doctrine to take advantage of these technologies. First, the Army is undertaking a series of academic approaches through various studies. These examine the enemy, the threat, the technologies being used, how they are evolving, how they might evolve in the future, and how that might affect the Army’s mission and capabilities.

A few examples McKenrick offered include studying Russia’s operations in Ukraine and long-term studies focused on 2030 to 2050 to look long term at how the Army and the threat will evolve across land, sea, air, space and cyber. Battlefields will become more lethal, contested and congested, he said, noting that future conflicts will likely take place in more urban environments as signified by growing population trends, which will require the Army to be dispersed and concealed in these areas.

“The enemy is developing capabilities to threaten [our satellite communication and connectivity], which could cause us to operate in a degraded or denied satellite connectivity environment, so we have to be prepared to fight and that will cause us to have a decentralized combined arms operations,” he said.

The second portion of developing future concepts involves exercising technologies and capabilities. For every concept and capability, he said, they bring in observers, controllers, and system managers from industry and centers of excellence to document soldier feedback and ensure systems are being used and integrated properly.

"During the exercise, every day there is constant coordination between the systems managers, the data analysts and the observer controllers to determine if we’re right assessment on this capability,” he said. That feedback allows the Army to change the scenario to provide the right stimulus for those capabilities to perform so the service can get the most accurate feedback, he added.

Information is then entered into databases, and focus groups and surveys are conducted with soldiers to develop insights, and eventually recommendations on capabilities are tested.

Top officials examine if a particular capability can be fielded or if there are improvements that must be made before fielding. Additionally, they examine capability and concept performance to determine if it actually solves any of the 20 Army Warfighting Challenges, he said.

An example of how this process bore out, McKenrick said, was with the rifleman radio. The radio was designed to be issued down to the individual soldier; however, upon assessing this capability, the feedback from soldiers was that they were never far enough away from their team leader that they needed a soldier to communicate with the team leader.

As a result, the Army was able to cut this program down by two-thirds, saving millions of dollars that could be distributed to higher priority programs.

The planning process for these exercises begins two-and-a-half years from the exercise in order to allow industry input and synchronization for proper scenarios, McKenrick said.

He added that the goal is to increase joint and multinational partner integration into the exercise. AWA 18.1, which is being planned for May 2018, will take place in the European theater. McKenrick said personnel are working with U.S. Army Europe and NATO partners for this exercise.

He added that an additional goal is to shift this exercise between the European and Pacific theater as the Army is also already coordinating AWA 19.1 with Army Pacific staff.
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