Collaborating at the Speed of Relevance

From Armor & Mobility, May/June 2019 Issue

The Army’s ability to operate seamlessly and swiftly across multiple domains is critical. Winning on future battlefields will demand embracing and owning battlefield complexity at speeds inconceivable even a few zeptoseconds ago.

By Dr. Shawn M. Walsh, Combat Capabilities Development Command-Army Research Laboratory

On May 2, 2011, the Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan as part of a highly planned and coordinated mission known as Operation Neptune Spear. As they entered the compound, the Navy SEALs were being protected and enabled by “Big Army” technology at every step of their critical and historic mission. One example? The Future Assault Shell Technology (FAST) helmet, manufactured by OpsCore and fielded by the Special Operations Forces (SOF). This includes the FAST Maritime helmet, specifically fielded to the Navy SEALs. CCDC’s Army Research Laboratory and Soldier Center, in collaboration with PEO Soldier, industry, and the Army ManTech office, had developed the foundational material and manufacturing science that would disruptively enhance ballistic mass efficiency to make the FAST helmet possible. Shedding weight without compromising required ballistic protection allowed the Navy SEALs to co-locate other technologies and “optional extras” on the FAST Maritime helmet, collectively providing a potent suite of integrated tactical capability.

This simple example offers at least three enduring insights as the Army Futures Command (AFC) and SOF prepare warfighters for the complexities of the future battlefield. The first is the strategic value of collaboration between AFC and the diverse SOF community.

“We have seen the Special Operations community excel across the broad spectrum of operations in the most demanding, complex and uncertain environments imaginable. We want to model that spirit in the way we conceive, develop and transition cutting edge technology to the warfighter,” said GEN John Murray, Army Futures Command Commanding General.

As AFC develops new warfighting concepts and advances in science and technology, SOF offers new paths to access expertise and feedback in highly relevant warfighting gaps. The U.S. Army Special Operations Command and other SOF organizations have historically been willing to assume the risk to adopt, integrate, and field nascent technologies to rapidly close these time-sensitive gaps. Early adoption breeds familiarity and acceptance in the wider SOF community, and often warms up the defense industrial base to allow the time needed to adapt, scale, and acquire the advances to the larger Army.

Second, another key insight is that the Army will need to rely on new and innovative partnerships with entities and talent beyond the walls of AFC and SOF organizations alone.

“The USSOCOM Ideation Challenge that took place in Austin in April is an example of the Special Operations community seeking out technology ideas,” Murray said. “They have a solidified reputation for seeking out high risk, high reward possibilities. Without that commitment to trying something new and failing forward fast, we will not be able to keep game-changing technology in the hands of Soldiers.”

Indeed, USASOC, the Army Component of U.S. Special Operations Forces Command (USSOCOM), clearly states that its science and technology (S&T) mission “is to ensure that Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) maintain a decisive technological advantage on the battlefield by maximizing the use of external S&T resources to fill ARSOF S&T Gaps.” Similarly, CCDC’s Army Research Laboratory was recently recognized by the Defense Science Board for its pioneering efforts to create a network of S&T hubs across the U.S., and provide “open campus” exchanges between Army, university, and industry researchers and partners.

The third key insight is that effective warfighting outcomes will rely on rapid and adaptive integration of multiple technologies and capabilities.

“Army Futures Command is focused on one simple thing — making sure our Soldiers, and our future Soldiers, have the equipment they need, the tactics they need and the operational schemes they need to win on future battlefields,” Murray said.

Future warfighter solutions are likely to be inherently more complex, relying on interoperable technologies and tactics. The Navy SEALs were not merely protected by new ballistic resistant materials in their FAST helmet. The ergonomic integration of communications, sensors, and other situational awareness capability – enabled by the lighter helmet – provided asymmetric increase in overall warfighter survivability and operational effectiveness. Similarly, this intersection of multiple technologies and capabilities approach has become the inspiration for USASOC’s partnership with ARCYBER and ARSTRAT to refine the emerging SOF, cyber, and space operational nexus within the modern battlefield.

The Age of Speed and Complexity

Through its substantial and sustained investments in foundational science and technology – both on the part of the government and the private sector – the U.S. has enjoyed an array of overmatch in areas such as night vision, stealth, satellites, ballistic-resistant materials, and precision munitions to name a few. Our warfighters have been trained to maximize these benefits by using equally innovative approaches to tactics, techniques, and procedures to deploy the technologies. But what happens when the U.S. no longer “owns the night” with night vision systems alone? Or U.S. stealth and satellite technology are matched -or worse- disrupted and overtaken by ever-more aggressive and capable adversaries?

Scientific discovery is classically rooted in curiosity. However, global forces from the private sector and the strategic forces from multinational governments and militaries fuel the rapid diffusion and transformation of such discoveries into competitive technological advantages. In many instances, these forces will “level the playing field” over time, even in the most advanced and sophisticated areas of science and technology. Thanks to ever-increasing modes of global connectivity, talent and ideas are migrating and being shared faster than ever. This only hastens the diffusion of technology and intensifies the complexity of subsequent interactions and outcomes from such advances. The emergence of artificial intelligence will introduce yet another dimension to such complexity. The underlying question here is not so much the erosion of an overmatch advantage from a singular technology such as satellites, stealth, and night vision. Rather, the entire spectrum of future overmatch itself is in question. How does the U.S. ensure overmatch by embracing the complex interactions of multiple technologies converging across multiple domains and dimensions?

The recognition of this complexity is clearly evident in all of the most significant influences that shape future U.S. military strategy. For example, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) states that “success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting.” This NDS statement is crucial because it recognizes that simply developing new technologies – including singular technology “breakthroughs” – may be necessary but insufficient to achieve the multiple effects and outcomes needed to assure U.S. overmatch in the future.

The NDS plays a critical role in shaping the Army Modernization Strategy, and drives the development of concepts like Multi-Domain Operations 1.5 (MDO 1.5). The Army recognizes emerging trends such as complex interactions across human, physical, and cyber domains are shaping future competition and conflict. These trends include: adversaries contesting in all domains; smaller armies on increasingly lethal and hyperactive battlefields; nation-states facing difficulty in imposing their will in complex political/cultural/technological/strategic environments; and near-peer states competing below armed conflict, which makes deterrence more challenging. MDO 1.5 provides a conceptual framework to approach these interrelated trends in a comprehensive and holistic way that will illuminate both threats and opportunities in this emerging complexity. Similarly, DARPA is also recognizing and acting on the need for embracing multi-domain complexity with its “mosaic warfare” concept. DARPA’s mission is to make “pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.” Consistent with the NDS and Army MDO 1.5, DARPA’s mosaic warfare concept “seeks to turn complexity into a powerful new asymmetric weapon via rapidly composable networks of low-cost sensors, multi-domain command and control nodes, and cooperative manned and unmanned systems.” To realize its mosaic warfare concept, DARPA is stimulating the development of transformational approaches that favor adaptability and dynamic interoperability of heterogeneous systems to achieve resilience and overall mission effectiveness.

Owning Complexity – The Path to Future Overmatch

It is easy and increasingly commonplace to state that the future battlefield will be far more complex. It is equally easy to state that the Army needs to prepare for the operational complexities MDO 1.5 portends. Far less easy is admitting that our “business as usual” Army model for developing, acquiring, and fielding new warfighter solutions may not be sufficient to realize the full potential of concepts as ambitious and expansive as MDO 1.5. Yet it happened. In establishing AFC, senior Army leadership recognized it needed to bring new and focused leadership to conceiving, developing, and delivering the future force.

The complexities of the new warfighting solutions needed to enable MDO 1.5 would likely make elements of the “old” Army materiel development cycle uncomfortable. In the past the Army got exceptionally good – and comfortable – with developing and delivering items like body armor, tanks, rotorcraft, and cannons. The complete Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities and Policy (or “DOTMLPF-P”) solutions for these and other legacy solutions were well-known, well-accepted, and well-practiced. The U.S. defense industrial base also got comfortable and effective with the production of the materiel the Army required. Collectively, however, it can be argued that the Army’s legacy approach to DOTMLPF-P processes was not consistently able to respond to truly complex concepts.

The Future Combat Systems (FCS) program is often cited as such an example of the Army’s inability to execute a groundbreaking and transformational paradigm shift. While it is true that major changes and challenging time horizons made it difficult for the program to achieve key goals, more than 16 years ago the FCS program predicted the influence of new complexities that are proving to be relevant as the future comes into focus. Akin to MDO 1.5 and DARPA’s mosaic warfare concept, FCS recognized the emergence of a highly active, multi-domain battlefield where manned/unmanned teaming and adaptive, highly networked “systems of systems” would play critical roles. FCS highlights the importance of technology forecasting and prediction in warfighting concept development, but also the need to realistically synchronize new concepts and S&T.

AFC and the Special Operations Forces: Teaming on the Future

The creation of AFC is not simply a re-organization and re-branding of the Army’s entrenched processes for transforming concepts, requirements, and S&T into new warfighting capabilities. AFC was created to fundamentally redesign processes and organizational elements to adopt best practices, and tear down stovepipes and barriers that throttled the Army’s ability to keep pace with the realities of a changing world. A new relationship is forming between AFC’s Futures & Concepts Command and the Combat Capability Development Command.

“Scientific discovery efforts at the Army’s Corporate Research Laboratory more seamlessly integrate into developing warfighter concepts within Army Futures Command to support a hyperactive and lethal future warfare scenario,” said Dr. Philip Perconti, Director, Army Research Laboratory. “Multi Domain Operations will require this high level of synchronization to integrate competitive overmatch technologies within the complexities of multiple domains in warfare.”

Figure 1 highlights this shift to a more dynamic and externally connected discovery and innovation “ecosystem” to inform the development of future concepts. There are elements of AFC, however, that remain wholly intact from the Army’s past. Key among these are the Army’s long and successful history of teaming to accomplish a difficult mission, and its legacy of being an early adopter of high risk/high payoff concepts, discoveries, and technologies.

A gap will naturally exist between the Army’s need for near-term solutions and its need for long term investments to ensure its future force is ready for unprecedented battlefield complexities. It is precisely in this gap that teaming like that of AFC and the wider SOF community can thrive in co-creating a future that assures multi-domain overmatch. Commercial off-the-shelf technologies (COTS) will continue to play a role in the future, but leap-ahead advances will demand persistent investment over time. For example, as illustrated in Figure 2, developing new materials to enable future communications in contested environments relies on sustained investment in foundational research. MetaFerrite materials research led by CCDC ARL has yielded new antenna capability that could enable complex operations like manned/unmanned teaming in a low visible signature environment. Key to this success is forming relationships with industry partners to transition these advances into new Army capabilities. The National Defense Strategy, MDO 1.5, and DARPA’s mosaic warfare concept all emphasize the importance of developing new and rapidly adaptive ways to integrate technologies into a resilient set of warfighting effects and capabilities.

The SOF community has developed the ability to rapidly close many operational gaps with a mix of commercial off the shelf technologies and strategic investments in emerging S&T. With innovative public-private partnerships like SOFWERX, SOF organizations have linked operator needs to emerging S&T in highly relevant warfighter scenarios and mission operating environments. In a complementary approach, AFC has redesigned it concepts, requirements, and S&T processes to be continuously integrated much earlier, creating minimum viable products that can be proof-tested by wargaming, experimentation, and warfighter evaluations.

Equally important, SOF forward presence helps enable deep physical and informational understanding and influence in the operational environment; helps disrupt and delay adversary preparations; and supports the convergence of Joint Multi-Domain capabilities in the location and precision targeting of high-value systems in the Operational and Strategic Deep Fires Area. Collectively, AFC and the SOF community can determine if a new concept or technology not only survives first contact with an adversary, but also first contact with Army Soldiers and SOF Operators. After all, it is our warfighters who will need to understand, accept, and effectively deploy far more complex and interoperable technology in future contests and conflicts.

The Intersection of Tradition and Future Complexity

In its mission to lead the Army’s modernization enterprise, AFC will rely on working with partners like USASOC and the broader SOF community to balance technology advances with effective tactics, techniques, and procedures to deploy them. Time is of the essence, and the future is quickly unfolding across new intersections of land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains. Many experts have already suggested that a “wait and see” approach to determine which technologies payoff in the future is potentially riskier than adopting them too early. Analytically driven interaction between concepts and S&T will allow prudent prioritization of future Army investments. This partnership between AFC and SOF further refines CF-SOF interdependencies in the conflict continuum in order to inform our collective efforts to relentlessly pursue a competitive advantage over our Nation’s adversaries.

Owning complexity in multiple domains will not be easy. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and the ability to engineer materials on vanishingly small length scales are just a few game-changing technologies that will reshape the dimensions and dynamic interaction of future warfighting solutions.

Unifying the Army’s ability to forge the future across the modernization enterprise will make winning with complexity possible.