Opinion

In a COVID-19 world, system integration is the best approach

As COVID-19 is adding “social distancing” and “PPE” to our everyday lexicon and making handshakes a thing of the past, Project Convergence’s experimentation with artificial intelligence and integration is moving the U.S. Army closer to the realization that “any sensor, any shooter — or any sensor, best shooter” applies to more than solely the air and missile defense community.

Project Convergence is validating the path to success in future combat operations by integrating capabilities of many systems and not solely hanging our hopes on a new, best artillery or aviation or maneuver system. Concurrently, it is validating the need for the Army Integrated Air and Missile Defense system, or AIAMD.

“See first, understand first, act first, and finish decisively” was the mantra of Army transformation in the early 2000s, and here we are, 20 years into the 21st century, with AIAMD modernization efforts on the cusp of achieving the first two elements of that axiom — which enables the last two.

AIAMD’s development has not been easy, but it is essential, as our adversaries have not taken a tactical pause. North Korea is now a nuclear state with intercontinental ballistic missiles and, as recently noted on Oct. 10, other missile initiatives underway. China is creating barrier islands, improving its air and missile forces, and building a carrier fleet. Russia has optimized Syria and Crimea as proving grounds for its capabilities and forces while regularly probing NATO and North American airspace. Iran has fired ballistic missiles against undefended U.S. bases, demonstrated technical and tactical prowess by executing an integrated and complex armed unmanned aerial system and cruise missile attack against Saudi Arabia, and provided nonstate actors an expanded poor man’s air force.

Cyber, too, is becoming “mainstream” among our adversaries, and two of our near peers are developing hypersonic weapons, as witnessed in Russia’s recent Zircon cruise missile test.

As the U.S. Army, and the military at large, look to the future, all acknowledge integrating systems achieves a synergistic effect from our limited number of sensors, weapon systems and munitions. Integration closes gaps and seams, and enables the timely application of fires while reducing the cost-per-intercept dilemma. Closed architectures are a thing of the past, as are stovepiped systems. We must leverage each other’s data and information and apply the best available weapon to counter threat activities or inflict maximum damage upon an adversary.

If the Army’s Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor can provide an accurate launch point for a ballistic missile, shouldn’t the Army’s Precision Strike Munition or other long-range fires capability leverage this data in real time for an offensive strike? If an F-35 fighter jet detects aerial threats it cannot counter, shouldn’t it pass this data via a joint architecture so the joint family of systems can defeat those threats?

Project Convergence is endeavoring to expand integration and advance operating concepts to leverage all possible capabilities. It is a logical extension of a key AIAMD modernization effort — the Army’s IAMD Battle Command System, or IBCS — which demonstrated impressive capabilities during a recent limited-user test. Patriot batteries executed near-simultaneous engagements against ballistic missiles and low-altitude cruise missiles, while using only Sentinel targeting data provided to IBCS. Multiple capabilities operating as an integrated system — leveraging one element’s information and another’s lethality to defeat a complex and integrated attack — represents true integration.

The Missile Defense Agency’s integration efforts with the Patriot and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems, and its recent successful flight test, also demonstrate the power of an integrated approach. Specifically, this capability enables earlier engagements, expanded battlespace, an increase in defended area, flexible firing doctrines, interceptor optimization and the tightening of operational seams.

We cannot afford to slow these efforts or take our eye off the objectives and capabilities these programs will deliver. IBCS is approaching a key milestone decision, which will enable low-rate production to begin, execute additional development and operational tests, and field an initial operational capability in 2022.

Further integrating IBCS with other Army systems must be a future priority: It is the standard bearer for air and missile defense integrated operations and a key enabler for dealing with complex and integrated attacks. This investment requires sustained support from the Department of Defense and Congress as well as priority funding as we wrestle with flat budgets and COVID-19’s fiscal challenges and potential bills.

The Army is expected to add IBCS to Project Convergence — a good plan, but this action cannot become a distraction or diversion of resources that slows its development and fielding. IBCS, as well as the integration of Patriot and THAAD, are critical to success in today’s tactically and technically challenging operations, which are stressing the force.

Our integration efforts must expand to all joint air and missile defense systems and to our allies and partners, who remain essential to our success. AIAMD will also be a major contributor to the Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept and the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System — two key programs focused on integration at the theater level.

COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways and will levy a bill on our defense budgets. We cannot allow integration programs or initiatives to become COVID-19 casualties because seeing first and understanding first are the most critical elements in managing a crisis and keeping it from becoming a catastrophe.

Retired Lt. Gen. David Mann led U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. He has also commanded Army air and missile defense forces in Iraq, Southwest Asia and the United States. Retired Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon served as the director for strategy, policy and plans at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. He also commanded Army air and missile defense forces in Southwest Asia, South Korea and the United States.

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