Defense One Radio, Ep. 90: Project Convergence and the Louisiana Maneuvers

To understand how the U.S. Army intends to fight in coming years, we must look back to experiments in the early days of World War II.

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This episode is broken into three parts:

  1. What's new, with Defense One's Patrick Tucker (at the 1:31 mark);
  2. What's old, with Angry Staff Officer (at 15:01);
  3. What comes next, featuring Army Gen. Mike Murray and Lt. Gen. Jim Richardson of Army Futures Command (at 36:36).

Extra reading:

A transcript of this episode is below.

There’s something revolutionary happening in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. There, dozens of robots and thousands of people are working together to test and create a whole new way for America’s Army to go to war. If you remember our episode on JADC2 back in the spring, this revolution is part of that. 

It’s called Project Convergence, and it’s taking over the Army’s plans for the future. This year it’s even bigger, and it’s using multiple services—pretty much everybody but the Coast Guard. 

The biggest test yet for this whole project is happening right now. And according to the generals, it’s unlike anything that’s happened before. Well, almost anything. 

So that’s what we’re gonna talk about this episode. Project Convergence: what’s new; what’s old; and what comes next.

Part One: What’s new

The U.S. Army knows very clearly that this whole Project Convergence business is what you’d call a Big Deal. Some of its top officials recently devoted more than two hours in one sitting explaining it best they could without giving away anything classified just what the heck Project Convergence is and what it’s doing this year (video here). 

It was a pretty controlled environment, with basically generals talking to generals. But it gives us a still useful window into what’s happening in those deserts of Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. 

It also gave us a somewhat tidy explanation of what’s next. And that came from a six-minute video—like a movie trailer—that the Army produced for Project Convergence. 

Here’s a kind of cluttered but short clip that cuts right to the chase in terms of what’s happening with all this right now.

Clip: “...This year, Project Convergence 21 progresses to a series of joint, multi-domain engagements, all of which will inform the joint warfighting concept and DOD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control efforts. Using the Navy’s desert ship configuration in place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Navy coordinates with Army air and ground assets, while the Air Force links the joint force with its Advanced Battle Management System, [which is] a network of networks. Marine F-35B jet fighters deliver faster, more effective fires, automatically processing targeting data to minimize human involvement, and special operations teams provide human intelligence and ground reconnaissance, feeding the battle network data it can't get from technical means... 

Watson: Did you catch the two-hour briefing from the beginning? 

Tucker: I did get, I did catch the two hour hour briefing...

That’s Patrick Tucker. He’s been traveling a lot more than me, and he’s already seen the first Project Convergence demonstration. 

Tucker: ..This is the entire future of JADC2 in exercise. The key thing is that it is scaled up from last year's [exercise] pretty tremendously. So what they're trying to do with this year, the key thing is they want to emulate some of the distances over which this network is supposed to work over which these coordinated operations are supposed to work to better reflect what the Indo-PACOM area of responsibility would be like. So basically, they're trying to mimic the distance between island chains.

Watson: I thought about that, when they mentioned, the key part of this would be Fort Bragg.

Clip, cont: “...The 82nd Airborne Division [will] lead an air-assault force equipped with the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, feeding information to soldiers and mission updates based on real-time intelligence collected and received at a tactical command post at its main headquarters at Fort Bragg, the Army's Multi-Domain Task Force to coordinate long-range fires and satellite ground stations to cyber electronic warfare operators in HIMARS missile launchers…”

Tucker: Right. They're stressing across the country, not just in terms of the comms, though, but they're also going to be working in longer-range fires, and more aircraft, a lot more participation from the services. So last year's [demonstration] was kind of meant to represent an adversary that looked more like Russia, and in a land war, something European. And this one is supposed to much better emulate China, which means a lot more going into it. And this is kind of a marquee year for this exercise. And it's key because Project Convergence over the last couple of years has emerged as the military's big exercise to test out concepts for Joint All-Domain Command and Control through experimentation. So Joint All-Domain Command and Control is several things at once. It's like in biblical parlance, it is a trinity of many things that is, at once a vision and the direction in which everything must go. It is also sort of a reality right now, but not in the way the military wants it to be. Because we already have multi services that exercise across different domains; this is an effort to speed that up. And it's an experimental effort right now to do that. 

Wicks: This is not an exercise. 

That’s U.S. Navy Commander Rollie Wicks, who’s working with the Army on all this.  

Wicks: We have plenty of exercises from the Navy Marine Corps side. We have plenty of fleet exercises. This is a joint experiment. This is an opportunity for us to try new things.

Tucker: So it is at once where we are and where we're going, and where we are, and what we need to do. So, the over the course of defining that vision, it was the Air Force that took the early lead in experimenting without actually putting these things together to create all the main command and control in like real life, not just as a concept through a series—

Watson: They were doing this like what a couple of years ago already, right? (See, e.g., this Congressional Research Service report.)

Tucker: Yeah because they are in charge of the air domain. So it seems like they would be the kind of key node to tie all the other nodes together and to set like the data standards for all the other services to fall in line in. So they had the early lead in designing this stuff. And they had a series of what are called “on-ramps” for the Advanced Battle Management System. Well, so this is the thing, this is the big difference between what the Air Force was doing and what the Army was doing the Air Force, had every four months, they would do a new what they called an “on-ramp” where they would connect something to something else in a sort of controlled experiment. And they will tell you afterwards how that was going. This series of experiments would cost a lot of money. And it was costing  too much money. The Army took a different approach. And they actually invited a bunch of reporters out, as well as allies. They invited an entire British attaché to go out and watch them attempt to experiment with this concept in the desert. But last year, the demonstration didn't go off perfectly at all. So it's kind of brave of them to do that. They tested out their new ERCA cannons, their big long-range, super gun cannon. They tested another couple of elements to try and hit targets. The ERCA missed, and not everything hit the target. But they did demonstrate something that was really key. And he did it in front of a bunch of reporters, and a bunch of VIPs. And that was the most important thing. And the thing that they demonstrated was that it was possible to get all of this targeting intelligence data and use artificial intelligence and better networking to really cut down by orders of magnitude the time it takes to identify a target and shoot at it, miss it—in some instances, not in all—but shoot at it. And they'll feel like they'll get the hitting it part right. But the core thing is, the reason to pursue Joint All-Domain Command and Control is because we have to figure out how to find targets and hit them a lot faster if we're in a high-end conflict. So that’s why it was a kind of a courageous step on their part. And what you've seen over the last year is Pentagon money has flown out of the Air Force; even the new Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has basically said, ‘We're done with this ABMS experimentation; it's costing us too much money that we have to spend on platforms, new platforms and other things, new capabilities.’ And instead, the Army, through this project, has really taken the lead on actually experimenting with Joint All-Domain Command and Control for all of the services. So the Army is now de facto in charge, in terms of any service being in charge. But if there's a service that's in charge of actually experimentally figuring out how this stuff goes together—besides just coming up with concepts and writing checks—it's the Army.

Watson: I don't think I realized that.

Tucker: So what we're gonna see this year is again, like much larger exercise, but you're also going to see a tie-in from all the other services, including the Navy, including the Air Force, Space Force has a big role to play; because with the satellite images, you'll see a lot more equipment. And you'll really just see this whole thing scaled up. And I still don't think that they'll hit everything. But I still think that that's not the main thing. This has become the way the military is actually showing that Joint All-Domain Command and Control isn't just a buzzword. It's not just a vision.

Murray: At its heart it is a campaign of learning for the Army and it's more than just the technology.

That’s Gen. Mike Murray of Army Futures Command. He’s effectively leading this whole effort. 

Murray: A lot of people get focused on the technology that is part of project convergence . But the technology and the use of technology really drives us to begin to learn about how not can we fight differently in the future? But how we will have to fight differently in the future? Technology much like it did in the interwar period before World War Two, technology will enable us to fight differently as we approach the future…

Tucker: The thing they really wanted to show off last year—and this year, I think, we'll see it again—is this experimental artificial intelligence thing called “Firestorm” that fuses data and then basically outputs a recommendation for the optimal unit to hit that target. So that's what Joint All-Domain Command and Control is going to look like in practice. You're staging a massive invasion of a place; you're making a beachhead; [an] adversary takes out your F-35 [and] is supposed to take out the radar station, but immediately what's going to populate your screen is, we have a long-range fires team over here that is in optimal position to take out that anti-aircraft station. That anti-aircraft battery, you press a button and you hit that. Whereas before, you'd have to talk to a bunch of people and figure out where everything was now that your strategy of using that F-35 is dashed. And that would all take a little bit of time. Now basically machine-learned software just crunches where everybody is, the data on how well they're feeling, whether or not they're armed, where their positioning is, and other factors and will output to commanders just like when you're playing a video game. And the little kit shows up and says, ‘Do you want to try that door?’ And you just say, yeah.

Watson: Kind of like Clippy.

Tucker: That is what it is. It's kind of Clippy for the future of war.

Watson: 'It seems you would like to drop an intercontinental ballistic missile.'

Tucker: Are you sure you want to drop an intercontinental ballistic missile? Are you sure?

Watson: Well, I did notice that there's over 110 technologies that supposedly they're going to be experimenting with this year in this Project Convergence, which, as I understand it, is kind of going on right now. And there were also supposedly over 70 different industry partners [attending], is what Lt. Gen Richardson said. What do you understand about the interest from industry?

Tucker: Yeah. I mean, Project Convergence has kind of become the Met Gala for defense contractors. It's very clear that the military is moving in the direction of integrating all of these things on the battlefield. And in order for you know, you, the pom and etc, all of those future budgetary things are going to be in a circle with what happens at project budget, so they're going to budget for Project Convergence, they're going to budget for a lot of experiment, like experiments, they're going to budget to test out 100 some technologies and next year, it'll be 300. And after that, it'll be 500. Or it'll be 100 good ones that they are really confident in. And then that cycle is gonna keep going. But people aren't going to start buying things that haven't been tested for interconnectivity. How—like the way the military is going to start buying everything in the future is not going to be in the way that it bought things in the past. Sort of like, ‘This widget’s really cool, must have,’ says guy in office at Navy. Instead everything is going to be looked at from how well does it connect to everything else in terms of, you know, the concept for joint command and control, but also the practical interlinks, the API's, the software, the data flow. All of that has to be tested and experimented with; and there's a lot of experiments that are going to be taking aim at that, but this one is the big one. You're in this one and you've got a lot of eyes on it, and you have a stamp of approval showing that we felt confident enough about this thing to make sure that it interlocked with everything else and, we were confident enough that it would that we included in the experiment. So you know there's going to be—that's (A) the future of just the way that knowledge is going to buy everything, is testing how it connects to everything else, which is a big change. But this is the most conspicuous demonstration of that kind of activity for any vendor of anything. So it means also buying a lot more software from people, too, because making all this stuff actually work in this seamless way is a big software feat. So you're gonna see a lot more vendors being software guys, and not necessarily the big primes of the past, though they certainly want to be involved in this as well.

Part Two: What’s old

So far, we’ve been talking about what could be one of the most transformative moments in the U.S. Army’s history. 

Now we turn to what most definitely was one of the most transformative moments in the Army’s history. And it’s called the Louisiana maneuvers, which were a series of unprecedented Army exercises along sort of the middle of the Bayou state and over into Texas. 

I’m no Army historian, so I didn’t know anything about these maneuvers until I began researching Project Convergence. And it was Gen. Mike Murray who brought it up in an interview last year and then the Army sort of ran with it in its own messaging on JADC2 and Project Convergence. 

So I thought I’d call up a guy who is an Army historian. He goes by the name of Angry Staff Officer on Twitter, and we last spoke to him in our episode on the 1918 flu and the U.S. military. And in some ways, we’re kinda picking up the story for the Army after that flu—and the war that helped spread it—had swept around the world, decimating populations.   

ASO: What we have is the brainchild of one of the largest brains in the U.S. Army, George C. Marshall.

That, of course, is our historian, Angry Staff Officer. 

ASO: Marshall is probably one of the most influential individuals who's ever worn the Army uniform. He is the driving force behind the American Expeditionary Forces, logistics and operations prowess, or what prowess they can claim, during the First World War as a staff officer for General Headquarters for John Pershing. He becomes Army Chief of Staff, which is sort of the top dog position in the Army—the top staff officer adviser to the War Department and the president, from the Army—in 1939... 

Clip: “Poland, September 1939... 

ASO: The very same day that Germany invaded Poland. 

Clip, cont.: The German foe begins its ruthless march of conquest, and sets the stage for World War Two…Poland and the world learn the meaning of a whole new word: blitzkrieg.”

ASO: He'd already been highly influential in the interwar period. He oversaw the publishing of ‘Infantry in Battle,’ which was a compilation of lessons learned from small unit commanders in the First World War—really still very applicable to small unit infantry actions—talking about successes, failures. And it's not just U.S. Army [lessons], but also French, British and German as well. So he's very much interested, obviously in professional development. So with Marshall coming on the stage this time, everyone's got a very close eye on Europe, and also looking east as well. Because, yes, this is a time of the U.S. as like a pseudo-imperial power, I guess you could say, I mean, we've got the Philippines. And we've got a significant naval base at Hawaii; Alaska as a territory as well. Guam is out there; a few other small islands. So Marshall is sort of looking around, and he's looking at what the Germans are doing. He’s looking at what the Japanese are doing and he's realizing war is changing.

And by this time, there are several new technologies just shaking things up for strategists everywhere. Army Futures Command’s Mike Murray even brought these up, listing tanks, planes and radios as among the most disruptive back then—opening up entirely new ways to seize terrain and quickly. But not exactly for the Americans. Not just yet anyway.

ASO: By 1939, you know, the Regular Army is just shy of 200,000 [soldiers]. And same thing with the National Guard, really about 200,000 as well. And when they enter in this interwar period, you've got this huge debate: do we invest in people? Or do we invest in stuff? And oh, boy, if that is not like the question that plagues everyone through all time, right? Meanwhile, you've got the Soviets and the Nazis, who are basically using the Spanish Civil War as a training ground beginning in 1936, testing out all the new stuff that we're gonna see in a couple of years in Poland, and then in France. And in the midst of this, you have this big unknown, which is flight. Because the American experience with airpower, when it comes to 1930s? Is nil. I mean, it just doesn't exist. And so Marshall and the Army Ground Forces are keenly aware of what's going on in 1939 [and] in 1940. And with the fall of France, it's a huge wake-up call.

So Marshall and the generals start gaming out what a big war would look like now two decades since the last one. Twenty years is quite a while to not really get new equipment. And that would show.

ASO: And they’re presaged by maneuvers in 1939 [and] 1940 of existing Regular and National Guard divisions. And those are—I mean it's sort of like doing the best you can with what you got and what you got ain't much, but it's better than nothing. And at the very least it's confirming your assumptions that things are broken. Guard units are showing up to training without heavy weapons because they don't have any. I mean, they're literally going in with stove pipes instead of mortars. 

They’d written the word “tank” on trucks because they had no tanks, only trucks and horses. They’d write “0.50 caliber” on rifles that were nowhere near as large or powerful as the real thing in the hopes that maybe one day they would have the real thing. And a lot of this may not have even mattered that much had it not been for the journalists there snapping photos of the sad scenes of an Army in shambles.

ASO: It's embarrassing. And it is one way that the administration can splash a couple of pictures of units out there and doing maneuvers with machine guns that are made out of broom handles? That's a national embarrassment. And the American people don't like that. And FDR is very savvy to the media. I mean, his fireside chats are genius. It's where he's taking the voice of the president and putting it in every single home in a way that we're used to now hearing the president on TV, on the radio, seeing tweets, social media interaction. This is a whole new thing with a president literally in your home telling you why it is important that we invest in a national security infrastructure.

And that’s what Marshall sets out to build for the Army. In September 1940, the U.S. instituted a peacetime draft. And one year later, Marshall and his men are mapping out grid lines across at least four different states to put all these new soldiers and officers to a test unlike any they’ve ever seen. 

ASO: So it's a sort of robust infrastructure defense plan. But there's also a lot of questions, right? We're gonna try out maneuvering these units. We're gonna bring together 350 to 400,000 people. We're going to try maneuvering them as field armies. But we don't really know what is going to come of that. Then you have to understand each of the branches—infantry, field artillery, cavalry—are all headed up by a branch chief who oversees things, and they're the God of that branch. They oversee modernization; they oversee training; they're the ones who approve whether cavalry is going to be mechanized, or as it has been since time immemorial, will it be on hoof rather than wheel.

And that’s one of the other historic weapons of war in this story of the Louisiana maneuvers: the man on horseback. He’s a sitting duck in an era of tanks and planes.  

ASO: Yes, it is the end. It is the end of an era. It is really remarkable that really, the Army of 1939 and the Army of 1945 or 1946 are just so—I don't wanna say unrecognizable, but just so different, so entirely different. And the result, the big denouement in all of this preparation is the 1941 General Headquarters maneuvers, also known as the Louisiana maneuvers. And then the subsequent Carolina maneuvers that happened in North and South Carolina, just a few months later. And it is this colossal thing. We take a whole big section, going from Texas into Louisiana, the whole big chunk of land, and we're like, ‘Hey, this is your maneuver area.’ We don't move anybody out of there. Everybody stays. Everyone is told, ‘Hey, here's what's gonna be happening. If there's property damage reported to the U.S. Army. And it'll get investigated and hopefully paid.’ Again, you can think about doing this now and you know, people's heads explode. I mean, if anyone remembers Jade Helm. All that was was one special operations exercise down in Texas. And people were losing their minds over a government conspiracy to take over. Here you've got nearly 400,000 troops descending into a massive maneuver area covering two states.

What were their tasks?

ASO: There are different scenarios. There's attack and defense. There are attempts for encirclement. So it's trying out different tactical operations at a field army level, which is remarkable because this is not anything the Army had attempted before. Twenty-eight 1,000-man divisions, which are massive and nobody who commands them has maneuvered anything really over the size of a brigade—like regiments of 3,800 men. Most of those regimental commanders, the most they'd maybe maneuvered was 1000, perhaps 2,000. So this is all very much on Marshall’s mind. They're maneuvering across bridges, across rivers, they're maneuvering with tanks. The maneuver rules are almost patently ridiculous. But then we also have to look at it from a perspective of wow, they actually came up with rules. They had umpires; things were adjudicated...such rules as like a .50 Cal could take out a tank, like really?

But hey, at least by this time there actually were tanks for the soldiers. No more writing the word on a truck and pretending it’s gonna stand up to the Nazi Panzers. 

ASO: So one of the most wonderful anecdotes that I think typifies the entire enlisted man's experience of the Louisiana maneuvers—it’s even in the Army’s history. There's a bridge that had been marked as destroyed. And there was an empire there to ensure that no one crossed this bridge because it was out of play. It had been destroyed by enemy engineers. So the sergeant comes walking along with his squad. He sees that the bridge is out. He looks around, sees the umpire; looks back at his men and then starts walking across the bridge. And the umpire goes, ‘Hey, can't you see the bridge is blown up?’ And the NCO without missing a beat just comes back, ‘Hey, can't you see we're swimming?’ Like just classic finding a way to game the system.

Meanwhile, air power, which of course is new, can’t quite play war much like they’d go about fighting a war. 

ASO: The aircraft are dropping bags of flour to simulate kills. 

But there were also some bouts of tactical creativity that came from these exercises. 

ASO: You get to see Patton make an end run with armor actually refueling at, at gas stations along the way. 

General George Patton scored one of the biggest coups of them all when he pulled out of the original plan to take Shreveport, Louisiana. Heading straight at it like it was Berlin wasn’t working for everyone on his team, and his tanks were having a real tough go of the terrain. 

So Patton pulled up his stakes, shifted west a bit, found a road and floored it on those tanks for 24 hours straight, outside the exercise area, on the sort of roads us normal folk might use. 

As for his refueling at gas stations? That sounds like cheating to me. 

ASO: ...It's totally cheating. It's by himself. It's just armor. It's like, ‘Brah, you're not blitzkrieging; you're just driving with armor. And eventually, guess what? Your tanks are gonna get shot up, or they're going to get halted for lack of fuel. And then when you sit down and cry for more fuel.’

Patton, by the way, was supposedly later asked about this whole episode, and was it ethical and so forth. His reply? “I am unaware of the existence of any rules in war.”

The big new reality, the big new fact of life was simply this. 

ASO: War is suddenly so mobile. And so if you blink, your command post is probably gonna be overrun. This is where you get the recommendations for an armor branch. And that Marshall accepts. And so you start seeing force structure changes. You see your experimentation of anti-tank units—what turns into tank destroyers, which is a whole weird hybrid thing that doesn't really end well.

In addition to Patton’s potential as a leader—

ASO: You get to see Eisenhower comes to the fore as a planner. This is really where Marshall kind of eyeballs him as like, ‘Well this is a guy to watch.’ So there's a lot that's coming out of the Louisiana maneuvers. You have the Carolina maneuvers, and that's the fall of 1941. So you have these few months where Marshall is beginning to institute changes, he's looking forward, towards 1942. Of course, something happens very quickly in December. So with that, Marshal was never able to go I think as far as he wanted with trying to build on the GHQ maneuvers. What they did learn was the importance of armor to U.S. Army doctrine, and the fundamental need for greater infantry, artillery and armor cooperation—which you'll see experimented with the following years in North Africa with combat commands, which are a mixture of these combined arms units. But North Africa is the real [test]. Like, ‘Hey, all those experiments we did in Louisiana? Let's see if they paid off. Oh, no.’ Some of them didn't. Like airborne. The paratroopers in North Africa and their initial jump missed their drop zone so drastically there trying to secure an airfield that it was actually the armor they were supposed to secure an airfield—where you know, aircraft could land to cover the advance of the armor—the armor had to come rescue the airborne, which is a thing that paratroopers, part of them dies inside when they hear they’re being rescued by armor.

But it wasn’t all end runs and heroics for everyone in the maneuvers. 

ASO: I interviewed a guy and he's like, ‘If you had to ask me whether I was more miserable during the Louisiana maneuvers or in the Pacific during World War Two, I would have to say in Louisiana.’

There are plenty of pictures in the Army’s history of vehicles stuck in the mud, turned sideways, broken down. What about all those tanks tearing up the land? 

ASO: According to Army history, while there were damaged claims, they were almost all paid, which is kind of remarkable. I would love to do a deep dive on that someday to see if they’re being entirely truthful. But by and large, everyone seemed to handle it with goodwill. It probably just cuts out a lot of curiosity. Like, can you imagine that? Remember, 1940 is like this high level drama. So even, you know, fast forward a year, and that maneuver area in Louisiana is going to be retained, and it's going to become what is now Fort Polk—a good piece of it around Alexandria, Louisiana. And my own father was, oh, gosh, let's see, he would have been six, five or six when my grandfather drove the family down there. And he took part in the maneuvers in 1942 over much of that same area. And so my dad and my uncle have all these great stories about, you know, dad jumped into a foxhole with soldiers from the Red Army and my uncle got to ride in a tank. You can't imagine anything better for a little kid. It's just so great. A great legacy of the Louisiana maneuvers is that a good chunk of the U.S. Army, every year it gets to travel to wonderful, beautiful, steamy, luxurious Fort Polk and spend their own weeks being miserable in a large maneuver area, wondering why God ever created this horrific space that is seemingly populated only by insects that are miserable, plants that are poisonous, alligators, wild horses, and annoying paratroopers who seem to bend all the rules. So the Joint Readiness Training Center and all of its glory gets traced back to the GHQ maneuvers for which all of us who are in or have been in light units are deeply and gratefully and sarcastically thankful. With doctrine having been ’tested,’ technology tested, recommendations for improvements, they change the nature of the Army division. They make it go from a square division with two regiments to a much more mobile, lighter division—down to around 14,000 troops with three infantry regiments supported by a high volume of artillery. So you have changes being made on the spot. You have leadership changing out. You have all of this thought going into, ‘How are we going to fight a war, no matter if it's in Europe or the Pacific?’ And that really was striking to me because it broke the popular sort of myth that we always go into every war unprepared, which is a myth that is unfair to the people who have gone before us. Because those individuals really did do what they could in the year or so leading up to the U.S. entrance into World War Two—with what they had, and with what Congress would allow. A lot of people seem to forget the Army does not give itself its own budget. These days, it kind of seems like it sometimes does; we're just so used to Congress saying yes to defense spending. Congress was very strict in the 1920s and 30s on what and how much money would go to the Army. So you could do as much as the nation was willing. And the nation began to grow more and more willing through 1940 [and] 1941.

Because the fact of the matter is—both then and today: 

ASO: The Army's got one mission, like the big no-fail mission, right, which is: fight and win the nation's existential wars. Because if you lose it, well, you know...

After all, today in the U.S., perhaps more than ever before in its history: 

ASO: The American people have the expectation that the United States can project overwhelming power anywhere in the world at any time.

And that’s why today’s generals like four-star Mike Murray of Army Futures Command and his deputy, Jim Richardson, use words like “overmatch” and “speed” and “range” and “dominance” when talking about all this new stuff—the robots and the drones and coders.

Part Three: What comes next

We’ll turn now back to my conversation with Patrick Tucker. 

Watson: You remind me of Lt. Gen. Richardson saying they've got coders out there with the soldiers in the dirt. That's one of the intriguing things about this, writing new lines of code; and 20 minutes later, the F-35 has come by, and it's all coordinated, and kind of improvised. So you've got your coders in the dirt still, and you're talking about all this software, and kind of a lot of moving pieces going on—a lot of connectivity. 

Tucker: That's the point of it all. 

Watson: But Chris Lynch brought up the great point about, I mean, you were just talking about connecting Chris Lynch, former Defense Digital director, was talking about disconnecting, and asked if they've even thought about that quite enough. I found that interesting, because it gets at the vulnerability that's been the most dominant consideration about this whole entire construct, to my mind. And it's about working where you won't have access to me communications, where you’re going to get cut off. He said, “Are you focused on those sorts of things?” And it was a rhetorical question, and I'm pretty sure the answer was, to the degree that there's an answer, it's probably classified. But what are your thoughts on that particular facet of this: great, everybody's plugged in— 

Tucker: Yeah. 

Watson: What about when it all goes haywire?

Tucker: Well, this is, this is the thing: This is the fundamental contradiction that is at the heart of the entire joint all manner control concept, because on the one hand, the military has to pursue this. They're convinced. 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. That's the first thing that a high-end adversary goes after is the electromagnetic spectrum and space. And both China and Russia are really good at this. So why did we settle on a strategy that's super network-focused when our adversary is really good at attacking networks, and it's the first thing they'll attack? That's the contradiction at the heart of JADC2. And what the military has said is sort of a couple of different things, depending on who you're talking to. It is a solvable problem, though. On the one hand, they talk a lot about [how] we are going to have to rely on and create new forms of networking like mesh networking. So beyond that line where the adversary can push out your communications. When you're actually beyond that, you have to create entirely new little networks of things. It could be an F-35, and two Valkyries—you know, the big high functioning, but attributable drones that were attack drones that we're going to be pushing out to help F-35s basically be much more robust. It could be between ground units and air units. But they're going to all of a sudden make their own mesh network. And that is something that space is going to be involved in, because that's going to be one of the transport methodologies between those units and getting back. So they have to create new forms of communication where they are once actually talking less back to home bases. These units will be talking much more with each other in these more defined areas. And we've also heard a lot about software-defined networking and software-defined radio. And that sounds very dry and dull, but it is important, it basically means using software. And this is another application of machine learning to find little holes in the electromagnetic spectrum where you can create communications and your enemies can't disrupt them. So that's really important as well. That's a big part of this. And also certainly unjammable GPS, that's the main thing that they're that they're worried about. And they've had a lot of success actually showing off that they can create unjammable GPS; they haven't really deployed it yet at any great scale, but that's something that they can do. The answer to how you fight network warfare against an adversary that's attacking a network is you create new forms of networking in areas where you're not supposed to be, relying a lot on a new understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum to create that ad hoc communication. And you also rely a lot more on autonomy. And that's the other part of this that I think is sort of the most threatening for some folks: it’s that you're relying more and more on systems. It could be real ground combat vehicles, the unmanned ground combat vehicles; [it] could be aerial vehicles, whatever. But they're going to be making a lot more decisions by themselves precisely because they can't communicate back in the way that today a drone would talk to a pilot. So those three things are the answers. And that, as Lynch points out quite rightly, it's going to take a lot of software. And it's also going to take a lot of red teaming, a lot of folks to really test and attack from the inside, as you know, the way you drill in any scrimmage. As part of any successful team organization, you really have to test to make sure hey, this mesh network concept that we're putting together, it actually is able to withstand some of the more difficult hacking, or electromagnetic spectrum interference, things that China might throw at it. You really have to test those things off because that's where the success or failure of this whole thing. It's kind of a key choke point that people haven't yet figured out.

Watson: Yeah, I noticed Navy Commander Rollie Wicks, who's working with the Army for this. I had mentioned, he said, 'We need to leverage redundant communication networks.' And shortly afterward, he said, they need to be flexible in their C2 depending on the threat. And it did make me think that's kind of as close as they're gonna get to maybe talking about this openly. You know, being adaptable basically, in short.

Tucker: Yeah. They also don't have like one one solution. They have like, once they’re kind of looking at it and kind of putting it all together, I don't think there is. I know that if there was some big classified perfect solution that they had, then they would not tell us, but they wouldn't tell us that they had it is the thing. They wouldn't be telegraphing that like we do. We have figured this out. Don't worry, we really have a good crowd. And the fact that every time I ask this question, I get a new sort of like, ‘We're going to give this a shot’ answer.

Watson: Right. 

Tucker: Yeah, that lets me know that there's still some work to do on making sure that actually happens.

Naturally, Murray and Richardson are already looking toward next year’s plans. And the year after that for Project Convergence.  

Murray: There will be a Project Convergence-23. 

That’s General Murray. 

Murray: Twenty was Army-centric. [In] 21 we're focused on joint [operations]. Twenty-two will hopefully keep the joint force together and begin to bring in allies and partners at Yuma and as what we call, ‘hub and spoke.’ So the hub because the test infrastructure we've got is important to us to keep Yuma and White Sands and probably some other locations in 22. Then in 23, and possibly in 22, we'll do what we call spokes. So we'll begin to take experimentation to the theaters—both U.S. Army Europe, [and U.S. Army] Africa, and U.S. Army Pacific—and begin to work with our coalition partners and allies.

Watson: What’s your expectation on hitting those particular targets—one, bringing in a ton of allies next year; and then number two, taking this whole thing on the road?

Tucker: I think they're absolutely right to say that we're pushing this as quickly as we can. 

That’s Patrick Tucker again from Defense One. 

Tucker: This is at once a concept that they're going to be refining over the course of the next like 10 years, and in some ways, it still is definitely a concept. But they have to show that in terms of proving out that this thing, this concept is real and workable, and they have a basis to pursue it. And also that you have to bring them in early to show because otherwise, you're not designing the thing for everybody. The entire point of this is to start designing strategies and concepts of deployment, but also designing new things—new jets and drones and subs and tanks, etc.—with that kind of activity in mind with that as a key feature. So you can't do that if you're not bringing in as many people as possible and also trying and failing. So they'll get Congress, which seems to be behind it if you look at the money that they put in the last NDAA that they gave to the Army for this and the money going forward. I think they're behind it. But it's something to keep an eye on too, because it just keeps becoming a thing that is more and more money. And so it's possible that the Army's effort might sort of go the way of the Air Force’s. And you can all of a sudden wake up with folks on Capitol Hill saying, ‘Wow, this thing costs a lot of money for not a lot of impressive results, and shouldn't we be focusing on a different strategy?’ And next thing, they'll announce that we sort of reached JADC2 because they've defined success as wherever they were as opposed to the big bright vision that they asked for today. Succeed or fail this thing is the future of warfare in one way or another.

Watson: It does seem like almost a transparent attempt at a Manhattan Project-level impact.

Tucker: And that's well, then that's the other thing, too, is that we know that both China and Russia are also pursuing these very similar concepts. And in many ways, they don't have the same bureaucratic barriers to prevent them from doing it, but they also have their own problems. The Russian military is much smaller; then the state is much, much smaller. [Russian President Vladimir Putin] wouldn't say it's a lot smaller. But Russia is not in the same financial position to conduct a major war as we are. And they would have very different reasons for doing so. That's one thing, China, on the other hand they also don't have big barriers to top-down implementation of interoperability. Interoperability is something that defense contractors built poorly; they didn't want interoperability because the services didn't ask him for that. China kind of doesn't have that problem. But what they don't do is really good cross-service exercising. And this is where, I'm told, we have a slight advantage; we're actually kind of used to cross service exercising. So we already have, to a certain extent, joint all-domain command control, just not nearly as fast as we want it. But everyone is moving out on this, like the adversaries are too. They want that cross-domain interoperability. They also have very grand ambitions for harnessing AI to accelerate the pace of warfare. So if we don't figure this out, they will. This is like the thing. This is what the next war actually looks like. That's why you talk to so many former military guys that become or former defense officials that become science fiction authors, and they imagine the future and this is what it looks like.

Meanwhile, there’s one big thing we maybe all ought to keep in mind. 

Richardson: This is an experiment. Things are not going to work.

That’s of course General Richardson one last time. And he’s about to have quite a bit more work to do. 

Richardson: General Murray has tasked me at the end of the exercise [with finding out] what is our transition plan: What worked, what technology are we ready to transition? [And] What's the plan to do that?...

Another complication?

Richardson: This technology may not be classified, and this one may not be; but when you put it all together it becomes classified very quickly.

But of course, diligent general that he is, Richardson is undeterred. 

Richardson: ...some things are going to go well, and some things are not going to go so well. And so we're gonna learn, and I can tell you were excited...And like our chief says, speed range and convergence gives us the decision dominance necessary for joint overmatch.