DENVER – U.S. Army officials say it’s too early to take definitive lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though they are learning from the conflict.
“We’re 61 days into a major ground combat operation in Europe. It gives us a really unique opportunity to see how ground combat could be fought in the future based on what we’re seeing today,” said Director of Intelligence and Security at Army Futures Command Ed Mornston at the GEOINT Symposium in Denver on April 25. “But it’s really early – in my mind – to say that we have learned anything that we are going to 100% export into future concepts or change the trajectory of our technology investments.”
“We’re learning a lot,” he said, “but I don’t think we’ve slapped the table on anything and say this is what we have ultimately learned.”
AFC, a public-private initiative that runs modernization projects for the Army, is taking notes on what it needs, what it’s doing right and how the service has to move forward to fight on the future battlefield.
The conflict in Ukraine is a showcase for what commercial satellite imagery and sensing can bring to the table. Commercial providers supply satellite imagery to the military and the public, documenting the invasion in real time. That’s as companies including Hawkeye 360 detected GPS interference in the region leading up to the conflict.
For Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology Willie Nelson, there’s still a ways to go to turn those commercial systems into an effective military capability for the U.S.
The Army needs more persistence from commercial providers, allowing them to revisit a specified area rapidly to take images of an evolving situation, he said, adding that those sensors also need to be better integrated with Army systems, to the point that satellite data can be downlinked directly to the battlefield.
“I’m your biggest fan, we need everything we can get,” Nelson said to commercial providers at the event. “But if you can’t get that down to a tactical user in the field in a format that they can rapidly use, then you’ve got a lot of persistence but no real warfighting capability.”
The Army is making progress toward that end through agreements with the National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to foster rapid prototyping, as well as a memorandum of understanding with the Space Force, he said.
Need for speed
The conflict has also shown the need for faster development of software and technologies, as well as flexible systems that can adapt and continue working in an adversarial environment.
“The situation is extremely dynamic. The intelligence demands are changing and evolving as we watch this conflict,” said Mark Kitz, chief engineer within the Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare, and Sensors. “We have got to build our systems that can adapt in a dynamic way as the threat elapse[s], as our data demands adapt, as different sensors enter and exit the environment.”
The Army needs an infrastructure that can do those things in an open and adaptable way, so that troops on the ground aren’t waiting three months to a year for new software or a new antenna built for that environment, he said.
There are also lessons to be learned from the ways Russia’s efforts have fallen short of the expectations of its government and of outside observers.
“You can really see where they are. Are they really ten feet tall? Sometimes we tend to paint our adversaries as 10 feet tall when maybe they aren’t,” said Major General John Rafferty, director of AFC’s Long-Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team.
For AFC officials, Russia’s failure to deliver in the conflict validates the U.S. Army’s entire approach to modernization and training, from doctrine to facilities to combined arms training to leader development.
“It’s a complete validation – at least, in my opinion – of the Army Futures Command and largely the Army’s approach to this, Rafferty said. “The second thing for me it validates is our approach to training and combined arms training. It’s hard. It’s expensive. But you can see what the shortcom[ings] are if you don’t invest in that.”
And for Brigadier General Stephanie Ahern, director of concepts at AFC, the conflict is also a validation that the Army needs to continue developing its multi-domain operations doctrine.
“It also reminds us that countries have very unique ways of approaching warfare, and that our future warfare must remain American to its core,” she said. “But those who we are fighting against probably won’t pursue the same approach and so the ability to have information that we can share very quickly across communities, across countries, across allies is absolutely essential.”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.