WASHINGTON — Partnering helicopters and unmanned aircraft just a few years ago meant that a pilot could control a drone to fly ahead to conduct reconnaissance. Maybe it meant a pilot could control payloads or even the weapon systems on that drone.
But at Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, this month, manned-unmanned teaming took on a far more advanced meaning.
The Army’s Future Vertical Lift team rolled into the service’s weeks-long “campaign of learning” with 19 semi truck trailers and almost 200 people, Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of the Army’s FVL modernization efforts, told Defense News in a Sept. 22 interview.
The effort brings together future weapons and capabilities envisioned for a 2030s battlefield against near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China. It includes using a machine learning and artificial intelligence-enabled battle management system that is in development.
Rugen said he was “very, very proud” to see technology at the event mature to the point that allowed for data to be pushed across networks “faster than we’ve done in the past” through a tight-knit kill chain that included space, air and ground assets underpinned by Assured Position, Navigation and Timing (APNT) and an advanced network.
The team had 127 technical objectives it wanted to meet through 11 use cases and the three mission threads.
The breadth of the effort reflects that the Army is at a critical juncture when it comes to modernizing its fleet. The service is attempting to develop and field both a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) as well as a variety of Air-Launched Effects (ALE) capabilitiesalong with a modular open system architecture that makes it easier to upgrade and modernize as time goes on. Leaders want all of this by 2030.
The next level of algorithmic warfare
A year ago, the Army’s Architecture, Automation, Autonomy and Interfaces capability, or A3I, was put to the test at China Lake, California. In that effort, an operator with a tablet in the back of an MH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter took control of a Gray Eagle drone and tasked it to fire a small, precision-glide munition at an enemy target located on the ground. At the last second, a higher level threat was detected and the munition was rapidly redirected toward a different threat, taking it out within seconds.
At Project Convergence, the final shot of the campaign came from a soldier on the ground taking control of a Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) munition surrogate (a Hellfire missile) on a Gray Eagle — representing a FARA — and firing on the target. This takes critical seconds out of the operation as the pilot of the aircraft wouldn’t have to focus on trying to locate the target himself, aiming and firing the missile.
At China Lake, the Army was able to use automation to reroute the Gray Eagle around poor weather. This year the aircraft were avoiding threat weapon systems, Rugen said. And while the Dynetics GBU-69 small glide munition used last year was inert, this time the Army used live rounds.
The Army also used an open system architecture that was flexible enough for payloads and capabilities to be swapped in out of its A3I Gray Eagles without having to rely on the original equipment manufacturer to do it, Rugen highlighted.
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