Defense One Radio, Ep. 91: Project Overmatch + Project Convergence, updated

We explore the future of the U.S. Navy's Project Overmatch.

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This episode is broken into two parts:

  1. Project Overmatch with Defense One's Caitlin Kenney (at the 2:28 mark);
  2. Project Convergence, updated with Defense One's Patrick Tucker (at 15:48);

Extra reading:

A transcript of this episode is below.


Gilday: So Task Force Overmatch is the Navy’s contribution to JADC2, or Joint All-Domain Command and Control. 

That’s Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, speaking at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington this past May. 

Gilday: In short, what we need to be able to do is put ourselves into a position where we can both decide and act faster than any adversary. 

Now some of that may sound familiar, especially the “deciding and acting faster” stuff. It reminds me of what Army Lt. Gen. Jim Richardson told reporters about the Army’s JADC2 contribution: “speed, range and convergence gives us the decision dominance necessary for joint overmatch.”

Small: The point of Overmatch is to provide systems of systems and be able to open up a whole lot of avenues for us to be able to move information to achieve that decision advantage.

That’s Navy Rear Admiral Douglas Small, and he directs what’s known as Naval Information Warfare Systems Command out in sunny San Diego. And he’s in charge of guiding the Navy’s Project Overmatch from dream to reality. 

Why? If you’ve heard our previous episodes, you know that China is a big part of why this is all happening. But here’s the rear admiral explaining a bit more in an interview with the Center for Strategic and International Studies this past spring. 

Small: Over time, our adversaries have built up capabilities to start to challenge us. And what we’ve seen recently, of course—especially from the Chinese—is a great upswing in the numbers of systems that they have developed and deployed to truly challenge us, certainly in that region; and of course they’re becoming more of a global actor as well. 

One of the ways the U.S. Navy wants to respond to that growing Chinese navy is to make the American force a wider one—covering much more of the sea. In this way, so the U.S. thinking goes, America can become more intimidating. This is because, as Admiral Small explained—  

Small: If you really want to impose risk across a wider expanse, you really have to distribute that force. And that's where sort of the difference between those older sort of blue water operations and the more modern distributed maritime operations—that's really what drives it. So you want to be able to impose some risk across a wider expanse from a distributed force.

The multi-billion dollar question you may be wondering is how the heck is this—Project Overmatch and its goal of a naval force that’s wider and more plugged-in than ever before—how is that supposed to work? 

The direct answer is classified. But the Navy’s top officials talk about the cloud and “wrapping” and “container-izing” data and sending it on its way. One imagines it going via some super-encrypted method to an F-35 or a submarine or a team of SEALs on some objective. Those would be like people you send a text message to. 

Small: The iPhone is a great analogy. 

By the way, that smartphone analogy is a popular one among Navy leaders. In the last couple of appearances Gilday has made on the subject, he’s brought it up as an analog each time. 

Gilday: So let me give you an example and if I drew a parallel to your smartphone: Your smartphone right now is probably connected to a wifi network and then also to a 4 or 5G network from your service provider….And so if I could draw an analogy to your cell phone that's connected to both 5G and wifi, that the phone makes a decision on which way the data is going to travel in order to get, you know, information to an app on your phone or to another endpoint, in order to get to a decision very quickly.

Gilday: So let me give you an example and if I drew a parallel to your smartphone: Your smartphone right now is probably connected to a wifi network and then also to a 4 or 5G network from your service provider. And your phone, the software on your phone makes a determination of what path the data’s gonna take to and from your phone. You really don’t care what path that is; it’s figuring out that software’s driving the most efficient means to move that information. And then you have microprocessing and the applications on your phone that help you make whatever decisions that you have to make. It’s the same kind of approach that NAVWAR’s taking.

But that’s not the only way to look at it. Here’s Doug Small again. 

Small: For people who have a Tesla, it’s another great analogy of how software gets delivered over the air to pretty complicated machines.

And the reason behind all this—beyond just China? Like Project Convergence, it basically all hinges on that wargame from 2017. Patrick Tucker told us about it briefly in the last episode. And here he’s talking about the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. 

Tucker: ...They conducted a series of war games in 2017—simulations, very high-compute simulations, where it was revealed that if they didn't do this, then if they got into a war with China, or Russia, most certainly China, then their ass was going to be handed to them unless they pursue highly-networked warfare against an adversary that will begin its defenses or will begin any major conflict first by attacking exactly that kind of activity, attacking exactly that network.

Here’s Navy Chief Gilday, saying much the same just a few months ago. 

Gilday: I really think we’re gonna be challenged to fight in the future, no matter what platforms we have, we’ve gotta be able to communicate with each other and that data has to be able to transfer on many different networks, on many different levels and to be able to do so securely.

And Admiral Small said essentially the same thing. 

Small: And so we cannot take for granted anymore just complete freedom of maneuver in international waters. And so that's really what we're talking about, is that our ability to move to [and] at a time and place of our choosing wherever we wish to go, that era is over and it's because of this competition that we find ourselves in. 

So where is the Project Overmatch program today? 

I recently called up my colleague Caitlin Kenney, who follows the Navy for Defense One. 

Watson: And I don't think we've even talked before on the podcast. So welcome to Defense One Radio, Caitlin.

Kenney: Thank you. I'm excited.

Watson: This whole episode is about Project Overmatch, the Navy's portion of JADC2. We've talked about it for a couple episodes, so we don't have to do too much backfilling for listeners, I don't think. But I'm wondering, because I didn't know much about Overmatch period, even after working and researching on Project Convergence, so I'm wondering, can you sort of tell us what kind of activities have been done so far under the Navy's system-of-systems version of JADC2, their own Project Overmatch—what do we know about it?

Kenney: So right now, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gilday, told me on Thursday that they're about to begin their fourth technical spiral, which is essentially a test of the integration of their networks. And they're hoping by late next year to early 2023, it'll be able to scale it to a strike group, and then into a fleet. So right now, it's only been around for about a year. I don't think they're really promoting it, like the army is, I think, because, like I said, I think that it's gonna, just from what Gilday said about the challenge. The next challenge is scaling it. I think that's like a huge thing. Like, right, because like, if you're going to add, you know, it's like trying to get on a wifi network. If you put like a bajillion, you know, you put your PS5, your computer, your cell phone, all this crazy shit on it, it's going to get overloaded. So I can't imagine putting a bunch of unmanned sensors and then whatever else, and then moving it back and forth. So they bring it up when they can, but they're pretty quiet about any progress. It is Gilday's number two priority. So it is like, behind the Columbia[-class submarine program], this is his number two priority.

Watson: Yeah, behind the ability to maintain a second strike, and if anybody attacks us, this is the number two thing, right?

Kenney: I mean, it makes sense. Because it's like, they have a joint mindset for sure. But I think that this is a huge new domain for them, which is networking, in terms of really putting everything together and making it seamless, right? Instead of like, punching in numbers into some dial. They're like, okay, like, you just connect it and it works and you get everything. This could be interesting to see, so yeah.

Watson: And as far as we know, it's not like they have taken a drill out to the Atlantic and said, 'Here's Project Overmatch.' They're kind of like workshopping it laboratory working, that's sort of our understanding?

Kenney: So one of the first iterations of that they're going to try it in 2023, they're gonna try to move their naval operational architecture, this new network, to put it on the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, according to U.S. Naval Institute News. So that's something to definitely look out for.

Watson: Interesting. It does seem to sort of, from what I understand, line up with the Army's own goal to kind of take this thing out on the road, as it were, and one of them was the Pacific theater. And they mentioned Europe and Africa. I'm not sure how exactly they'll do that. But that's interesting, because their timeline too, was about, I guess, from here, it would be Yeah, about two years. If everything goes well with Project Convergence, and I guess everybody else's JADC2. All right, the other half of Project Overmatch, which I find it hard to believe it's done by now, and just to hear later, is to incorporate unmanned systems, including ships and aircraft into what you talked about with that naval, operational architecture, this network part that the Navy is building, and I guess has already built up for this whole thing. Have the Navy leaders said much about that drone aspect? I kind of partly wonder if it's just not like sensitive technology, kind of like a war game where they won't give you the details of a potential battle in the Pacific because it's sensitive. Do we know anything about the second half of this Overmatch thing, with this other memo, incorporating drones into at all—is there anything we know about that at this point?

Kenney: I mean, I know that unmanned is the future for the Navy, that anything that they are working on and improving for the future, unmanned is going to be part of it. So I wouldn't be surprised if they have, in some way, added unmanned to any of these tests that they are doing.

Watson: Yeah, it does seem like an affordable way to go. I mean, it's kind of hard to avoid the temptation of if you're going to lose somebody out in combat, it would rather be like an inanimate object as opposed to a real human. But it also does kind of point to kind of like the budgetary considerations and all of this. And it's hard for me to nail down too many figures. I'm wondering if you as well have been able to kind of get any window into what overmatch costs for the Navy?

Kenney: Yeah, so National Defense reported that the Navy asked in its 2020 budget request for nearly $6 billion in its overall information warfare program portfolio, which supports Project Overmatch. So that pretty much sounds like that's where they're putting all their money right now.

Watson: Interesting. About $6 billion. I think the overall budget that we're tracking for this year is coming in close to $212 billion or so. That's, in my mind, that's fairly affordable: $6 billion out of $212 billion. It lines up as well, with a very rare quote that I heard from the guy who's directing this, Rear Admiral Doug Small, talked about back in May. He was sort of asked about the budget situation then, and that was the early part of the budget season. But his response was, in terms of kind of, what will the costs be? He said to the Center for Strategic International Studies' Seth Jones, he told him, he said, 'By any metric, we have a lot of money.' And I found that a very blunt and interesting quote, but he was saying basically [that he's] anticipating a kind of a flattened budget in the years ahead. But I found it kind of curious how it lines up also, with some of what we understand the Navy to be already—they were already kind of a joint force. The Navy is not gonna go out there—they're already tied up with Marines, for example; and they've got aircraft, you're going to have to communicate with the Air Force. Seems like they were best positioned to do all of this network-of-network stuff. I think even Doug Small said, 'The naval tactical grid is really the joint tactical grid in the maritime environment.' So I find it funny, because in a way, it's almost like the Navy seems to be best positioned for this kind of networked stuff. In fact, I think another line was, 'We've been delivering integrated fire control and things like that for some time.' So I do wonder if this JADC2 component might not be the easiest for the Navy, as opposed to like all of the other services.

Kenney: I think that it's taking time. It's only been around, like I said, for a year. I think at one point Gilday said, like a month or two ago that it wasn't exactly where they wanted to be. But on Thursday, when I talked to him about it, he said that he was cautious, but also very optimistic about the progress, about progressing quickly, saying that they're taking it one step at a time. So I think he's keeping an eye on it. And I think he wants it done as fast as possible. But understandably, I mean, they're trying to build this massive network to connect ships, weapons, sensors, unmanned. I mean, it's incredible. So I can see where he's kind of like, 'Hurry up. We need this now.' But also, like, 'We need to take the time to make sure we're hitting all the marks along the way.'

Watson: Very good. All right. Well, Caitlin Kenny's a staff reporter at Defense One. Thanks so much for talking to us. I appreciate it. Caitlin.

Kenney: Thank you.


Part Two

We turn now to the Army’s Project Convergence, which was the focus of our last episode. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker traveled out to see this year’s demonstration, held in early November out in Arizona’s Yuma Proving Grounds. I caught up with Patrick recently, and he shared some of the things he found interesting out there in the desert. 

Watson: Now granted, I've just reread the piece that you've written in Defense One about it all. Still, please tell me what you learned out there in Arizona.

Tucker: This year's event, definitely much bigger, much more moving parts. Key thing is that it brought in actual operators from the 82nd airborne, and the 18th Airborne Corps, to try and execute on some of these new fangled concepts and work with some of this brand new technology to create, to create, like new effects faster, and that's sort of the point of the whole thing. So unlike last year's event, this one featured long range fires, effects, like the prism and the ERCA that actually fired correctly and hit their targets. And they didn't shoot at the range at which they're capable, because that's not something you can kind of do in the U.S. in a single exercise, but they did work. But more importantly, you saw much better interoperability and interaction among all of the different parts, including the Navy played a much bigger role, the Marines were there this time. And that's speaks to or gets at the entire point of these things, which is to show that all of the services together can just share information, share targeting, share plans, and coordinate and do all the things that they you know, do as a joint force, but far faster, if you streamline the data if you add a bunch of new technologies to it, and just make everything go from zero to 60. So, in that regard, it was pretty much a success, nothing went off without a hitch, it is a staged shoot. So there's a limit in terms of how bad you know, like could have gone. But they still have some challenges ahead of them. They, over the course of one day, we watched like a staged demonstration. But over the previous five days, they had been testing out all of these things in scenarios that were very specific to things that officials that Indo-PACOM have said like, these are scenarios that we're worried about, there's an air assault, etc. There's an attempt to defeat incoming fire, etc. And on one of the five days, for each of the scenarios, they tested how well all of their plans worked in a contested environment. And that's key, because that gets to the thing that we were talking about last time, which is that it's great to have lots of new, cool, interconnected technology sharing digital data to accelerate operations; it's another thing if you're talking about doing that in the face of an opponent that has incredible capacity to use, manipulate and deter in the electromagnetic spectrum, which is both China and Russia. So when you ask them about, like, how did that date go? When you tested it in a contested environment? How did that go? And they would all say, Well, we learned a lot. But in particular, the network guy said, ‘Well, we learned a little bit about the trade offs.’ And so the things that they're learning are actually the details at this point, like the nuances about like, what is that range? How do these things actually work in the face of contested communications? And they do work, but they don't work necessarily the way they did when you drafted that big, beautiful, brilliant assault plan. Now you have to adapt it for the actual reality. So that is a very worthwhile test, but it does show that like, you know, the drawing room plans aren't the plans that you are going to probably wind up executing with, not without some serious revision, and so that's why they're doing this. I thought that was very interesting. And there's, you know, Some other things that they're learning, too; a lot of small things like all of these robotic ground vehicles that they want to deploy in these things to collect ISR and to keep human beings away from the most dangerous mission sets—forward observer in the Army, or J-TAC for the Air Force— whatever you like that guy that has to go out there, look at the Taliban, or look at the al-Qaeda little camp there and say, ‘Okay, I see the coordinates. This is where you drop the Hellfire.’ That can be roboticized. But the problem is that the technology that we in the civilian world that companies like Google or Uber use to teach self-driving cars, which are the closest corollary to see, is called laser range-finding. So it's basically a laser that goes out and kind of paints the surrounding area. And depending on how far the laser goes, before it hits something, you get like a picture. And you can't use that on the battlefield against an adversary that can see you shooting that laser around using thermal optics, because then you're just gonna get your robot splat. And they're aware of this, they're completely aware of this. So they have to actually reinvent self-driving car technology, which is kind of annoying because they invented—it was basically DARPA money that invented self-driving car technology in the first place that came up with this LIDAR thing. Heidi Shyu, the new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, has also made comments to that effect. And bottom line is, there are real limits to how useful stuff coming out of Silicon Valley is for the Defense Department when you're talking about China. Like it is very useful, and it has been very useful actually, in engagements with non peer adversaries—what former Vice Chief [Air Force] Gen. Paul Selva used to call ‘knuckleheads on motorbikes.’ The guys that carry out insurgent attacks from the remove of single-family, detached dwellings in desertous environments. But when you're talking about a high-tech adversary, Silicon Valley is not defensed against that, and they’re still not. Heidi Shyu, to her credit, has spoken about that, too; but there's just a ton of technology that Silicon Valley makes, it's just not suitable for the Defense Department. And wherever possible, the Defense Department is trying to harness that private sector innovation, but don't be misled about what is possible versus what isn’t.

Watson: Well, I've been in like the Navy's world for the last several days looking into Project Overmatch. And the lead admiral for that program was talking about how there's a degree to which working in JADC2 for the Navy is not that difficult because as he said, they've been doing integrated fires for a long time. And he mentioned other things like a naval grid being a joint tactical grid, they already think about it that way. It just made me think, you know, some of these guys might be a little bit more plug and play ready to go. And it's not as big of a challenge as maybe I had thought at the outset.

Tucker: Yeah, well, and that's to a certain extent, that's true. But at the same time, they're also trying to show that they can achieve these JADC2-type of effects within the Navy first. That's kind of what Project Overmatch was all about. Right? It was to show that this is an idea that we can use to actually further improve our multi-domain interoperability. So they're not necessarily farther along, I would say, than the Army, because they are wrestling with or trying to experiment with just a ton of new technologies every year bringing more on board.

Watson: Well, what's next, in this JADC2 vision as far as you understand? I mean, this is the end of the calendar year, especially. That as far as I know, this was the end of the year, big powwow for the Army. 

Tucker: Yeah, everyone is (sort of like armies) marching towards 2022, which is going to be much bigger [and] take place in more places. We'll see what happens with navy and overmatch in 22. But we'll see what happens with their budget. And the Air Force, too—they completely went back on the idea of ABMS on-ramps because the Advanced Battle Management System—that was like their approach to JADC2, they were kind of rolling out a fun exercise every four months. They're not doing that anymore; it was starting to cost way too much money Kindle hated it. So you're gonna see lawmakers, I think the thing to watch now is on the Hill and see how lawmakers [respond], what they're seeing with the pace of these things. And you're gonna see, I think, the new administration's secretaries of Army, Navy and Air Force begin to look at what the services are spending money on to achieve this stuff, and probably take a knife to some of it. Frank Kendall, that's what he did. At the Air Force he took a knife to ABMS and said, ‘We're spending way too much money on this stuff, let's let the Army take the lead.’ And so they kind of did. That's kind of what happened. And not all the things that you saw on display this week are things that are going to make it to the final round. So it's great to have a ton of different technologies to go out and test. But that doesn't mean that you get to buy everything that you test drive; that that's not going to happen. There is a lot of enthusiasm for continuing to fund JADC2, but I think this year is the year you see Congress begin to ask some really tough choices of the services like make some some tough comments about how much is this really costing? Is this one necessary? Is this one, or is this the best approach? And so the thing to watch this year is the is the service secretaries and what they're cutting, and also watching the reaction from Congress and how happy they are because they weren't super happy with ABMS, which is a big part of the reason, you know, Kindle cut it, and they might have some questions about how the army is doing convergence. You know, so far we haven't heard anything to that effect, because this year's was a big success. But, you know, it's a finite military budget, and they're gonna face everybody's facing, you know, politics in 2022. And so I think you'll see that he'll begin to really question; maybe they'll like the answer that they get, maybe they won't, but they'll really begin to question how services are pursuing this thing.

Watson: You remind me of a quote that I pulled up from the director of the Navy's Project Overmatch, Rear Admiral Doug Small, back in May. He said, ‘By any metric, we have a lot of money. And I think what we're trying to do is go after this with more of an abundance mindset, not gosh, I wish I had this much more.’ And I just—that stopped me when I was reading that, or when I heard him say that. I was like, ‘Yeah, these guys know that there's gonna be budget cuts on the horizon,’ or some sort of maybe even flatlining or whatever, you know, they just have to brace for it. And they've already got the rhetoric for it.

Tucker: And I think that they're all figuring out that if you, as a service, want some other service to kind of be like the lead on the whole thing, then that saves you money to maintain spending on what that service figures out in terms of who has to reformat or rebuild, or, you know, recode what? So that's going to be, I think, the second kind of leg of this. But yeah, I think everyone's expecting [a] flat [budget]. Not probably a big cut, at least from folks that I talked to; no one's anticipating that Republicans are going to try and take advantage. Republicans just don't have the genetic capability to question the size of the U.S. defense budget. They have two buttons on the dashboard. One is more money, and the other one is more and more money. So it's, you know, that's, that's how that's gonna base it, [House Armed Services Committee Chairman and Washington Democrat Rep. Adam] Smith hasn't given any indication that he's terribly interested in, like, sort of big cuts. They like JADC2; they understand the importance of it, because it's borne out by scenarios and wargames and very well thought out exercises showing that this is where China and Russia are going. And if that is your pure competitor, you have to be good at this stuff. You'll see changes to the military's hypersonic portfolio, and some of the stuff that they're pursuing there, I think, before you see changes to the idea that we should pursue JADC2. But you might arrive at a point where they just take whatever they have and say, ‘Oh, we did it. We're JADC2 now. Everyone's now JADC2-compliant. Congratulations, everybody.’

Watson: In all seriousness, Thanks for traveling out there. Thanks for the ambient church bells, bringing the sounds of Washington D.C. to us. But really, thanks. Thanks for going out there. And thanks for talking. So at such length today about all this stuff, I appreciate it. Oh, always.

Tucker: Thanks for having me. Talk to you soon.

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