Project Convergence: Exercise Shows Value of Data Weapons Check for the Digital Age - Breaking Defense Breaking Defense

The Army’s Joint Systems Integration Laboratory held its second communications exercise (COMMEX 2) at the Aberdeen Proving Ground April 5–16. (File)

In this hypercompetitive world, the days when it was enough to fight together with weapons across time and space are quickly coming to an end. They are being replaced by the need for simultaneity in air, land, sea, cyberspace and space. Today, the services look earlier in the capability development process and use collaborative experimentation to ensure that future systems and weapons meet these needs. You are looking at initiatives like Project Convergence.

The Army’s Project Convergence ’21 communications exercise I recently attended at the Joint Systems Integration Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, is an incredible example of this innovative approach. War fighters, software developers, and engineers from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines ran multiple sensor-to-shooter scenarios to achieve the Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control known as CJADC2. The stress tests of tactical ground force systems that are integrated into common operational architectures are part of the services’s larger cross-departmental experimentation obligation.

At the Maryland lab, the Army brought together Marines, special forces, the Navy, and representatives from across the defense science and technology company to examine the art of possible digital connectivity and the use of artificial intelligence in tactical fires. While the cold precision of a computer lab is no substitute for the fog and friction of the modern battlefield, the integration lab is the first step in seeing what can really be achieved in terms of shared connectivity and interdependence on tactical fires.

An important aspect of this cross-domain approach is the recognition that there is no silver bullet when it comes to systems or solutions to achieve CJADC2. Each service domain brings unique capabilities with evolving requirements that must continually adapt to changing technologies and threats. For the army, this could mean a drastically increased need for data exchange via the cyber and space domains of tens of thousands – or hundreds of thousands – networked soldiers.

As a result, when implementing common all-domain operations, a single network architecture is not feasible from both a defensive and an offensive point of view. Instead, the operating architectures of the services must be layered in a resilient manner with common data exchange standards. Artificial intelligence could then be optimized for the informational advantage and rapid decision-making required to create multiple dilemmas with a close competitor.

From my cockpit, this type of digital rehearsal is just as important as a weapons check on our future battlefields. Data is the new ammunition, and we need to test our digital systems just as we test our weapons systems. But what I saw in Aberdeen, Maryland, was more than a test fire. The young men and women of our services, both uniformed and civilian, tried to strain our systems, connect in ways no one had thought before, and worked to improve the capacity, interoperability, and speed of our tactical networks.

This kind of work is not just done on paper with charts. This is done through experimentation – and yes, that means mistakes will happen – in the Joint Systems Integration Laboratory, coupled with field tests of developed solutions. It uses real systems with real common war fighters. Experiments like Project Convergence ’21, conducted in November at the Yuma Proving Ground and White Sands Missile Range, are not only essential, but necessary, in making smart investment decisions on a programmatic level.

The digits flew between the Navy, Army, Marines and the special operators in the lab, but it’s better if the digits move (or don’t move) in the lab than on the battlefield. Our investment in the systems lab continues to prove valuable and enables the team to take advantage of that final health check before we mess it all up and continue our Army’s learning campaign.

The transformative shift of the national defense strategy towards great power competition increases the urgency for joint operations of all domains in the defense against threats below the level of armed conflict. Our shared responsibility and shared energy have already created remarkable advances and momentum, as demonstrated by the Convergence Project and other Army Joint All Domains initiatives. Together we have to stay “all in” on a common framework in order to develop domain-compatible skills earlier with the common goal of surviving opponents today and in the future.

Ret. General Richard Cody served as the US Army’s 31st deputy chief of staff. Previously, Cody served in six combat divisions in the Army and held several key positions, including commander of the 160th Army.