NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. Army plans to experiment with drone swarms that behave more like a wolf pack at its second aviation-focused exercise leading up to Project Convergence later this year, the director of the service’s Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team told Defense News.
The Edge 22 drill will take place in the spring at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, and will feed into Project Convergence, a bigger campaign of learning scheduled for the fall. Project Convergence has grown from an Army event in the Arizona desert at Yuma Proving Ground in 2020 to a joint evaluation in 2021 and then to a coalition-level exercise this year.
Edge — which stands for Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercise — is considered Army aviation’s scrimmage before the big game. At Edge 21, the Army achieved 56 “firsts,” including a soldier at an unprecedented speed learning how to control both an unmanned aircraft system and its sensors from a tablet. It took the solider less than an hour to do so before executing the mission.
Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, who leads the Army’s future vertical lift modernization efforts, told Defense News in an interview last month ahead of the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual conference that he is “fading away” from thinking about drone swarms that exhibit the behaviors of insects. Instead, he’s looking at something more attune to how wolves run in packs.
“There’s behaviors in the wolf pack,” he said. It hunts, he explained during a media roundtable at AAAA, “and there’s an alpha that kind of runs the show and then each wolf has a duty, but then those duties are hierarchical. And if one wolf gets knocked out by the antlers, a second one’s going [to fill the gap].”
The swarm is “the largest interactive swarm/pack that I’m aware of that’s ever occurred,” Rugen told Defense News.
The Army has been partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on the effort. The swarm will demonstrate some unclassified behaviors, including the ability to detect, identify, locate and report; geolocation; electronic warfare; collaborative operations and cooperative search using algorithms and patterns; and navigating in a GPS-denied environment. The Army will also have lethal effects in the swarm so a drone can neutralize a target.
The rest of the behaviors are classified, Rugen noted.
If drones drop out of the swarm, he explained, the Army will seek to understand “how we need to fill in the gaps.”
“Behaviors are important because they’re going to be software that we then update as we go forward to be far more effective” in operations such as penetrating enemy defenses, he added.
Also at Edge 22, the service is joined by international participants, including seven NATO countries: Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K., Canada, France and Australia.
“We’ll do a combined air assault with our partners, and I’m very excited about some of the technologies they are bringing to get those cross-domain solutions,” Rugen said.
The goal is to ensure the Army understands where it is interoperable with its partners and allies.
The Army is also “significantly ramping up” its electronic warfare capability. As electronic warfare systems come in smaller packages, the service will experiment with a small air-launched effects capability, Rugen said. An air-launched effect is a drone that will be deployed from a larger aircraft equipped with sensors or weapons. The vision is that it will operate in a team with the Army’s manned or optionally manned future vertical lift aircraft.
The Army will also use its High Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System surrogate, a fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform that the Army is considering as a future fixed-wing ISR capability.
With that, the Army will work on strategic-level intelligence collection and how to get that strategic information “down to the tactical edge in a very low, latent manner,” Rugen said.
The Army will also be doubling its airborne network distances, he noted.
Additionally, the service will integrate an aircraft’s onboard sensors with a ground vehicle in order to conduct the first live fire from an unmanned ground vehicle using the Aided Threat Recognition from Mobile Cooperative and Autonomous Sensors — an artificial intelligence-enabled system that uses sensors and edge computing in the air and on the ground to provide target data.
“That integration, air to ground, is critical to us,” Rugen said. “We will see some big technical objectives in that” which will demonstrate a tighter joint kill chain.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.