U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Matthew Ping, a Tactical Air Control Party specialist, ensures safety on the range while guiding air support with simulated data received from an Army ground commander during Exercise Scarlet Dragon on Fort Bragg, N.C., February 1, 2023.

U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Matthew Ping, a Tactical Air Control Party specialist, ensures safety on the range while guiding air support with simulated data received from an Army ground commander during Exercise Scarlet Dragon on Fort Bragg, N.C., February 1, 2023. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Osvaldo Fuentes

CENTCOM Exercise Aims To Speed Up the Pace of War

Using AI to handle boring administrative tasks helps enable faster targeting.

How fast can a force composed of units from different services and acting in different domains make combat decisions? Can the process be radically accelerated? A recent U.S. Central Command exercise sought to find out.

While the Army’s Project Convergence and other efforts have fostered tools to connect services across air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, the process of finding and hitting targets can still be slowed by bureaucracy and other human factors, CENTCOM’s fires chief told reporter Defense One on Friday. That’s especially true as the targets get more important, said Brig. Gen. John Cogbill, the command’s deputy director of operations fires and effect.

“There are certain targets that…you can handle at the lowest level at the tactical level. And then there are certain targets that are operational. And then there are those that are strategic. The strategic-level targets probably have the most risk associated with them and require the highest…approval authority,” Cogbill said. 

Getting approval from the Joint Staff, the defense secretary or the president can take days or weeks. It can require printing material in secure locations and creating presentations  for review back in the United States. The briefing, Cogbill said, goes something like this: “Hey, I'm gonna send you a PowerPoint slide with the 100-plus top-secret photos and background, intel, and everything else.” 

So the organizers of the Scarlet Dragon Oasis exercise took aim at the things that hinder mission execution. They sought to bring operators, technicians, and commanders across echelons together much more rapidly, enabling an analyst to pass digital targeting data all the way up to the defense secretary. And they worked to pass the data in real time, enabling the highest authority to make decisions about what’s actually going on with the target at that moment—in case, for instance, innocent civilians approached an important communications hub after intelligence officers had already spotted it.

“You don't have to worry about version control. Is it version 16 or 17? People passing things around on PowerPoint, or on spreadsheets. The [Secretary of Defense] can see the same thing that the corps commander or the combatant commanders are looking at, or even at the analyst, all the way down at the tactical edge,” Cogbill said. 

Streamlining this kind of high-level targeting is more complicated than digitizing data that people used to print or email, said Schuyler Moore, CENTCOM’s chief technology officer. 

“It’s useful to run experiments like this because it allows us to then shake loose where those friction points are,” Moore said, “because sometimes it's technical. Sometimes it's policy. Sometimes it's human. 

“What I mean by that is, sometimes it's a technical problem we actually built...the pipe that allows the data to move from one place to another from a technical perspective. Sometimes it's a policy issue of: the means exists but do we have the permission, the data sharing agreement in place that would allow us to do this? And then the human friction points can revolve around, do the humans on either side speak the same language and understand the same processes so that they can act in accordance?”

Cogbill said the interface they imagine would allow the decision-maker “anywhere in the world” to “basically go to a browser to…see live data in real time on this, on this same single pane of glass.”

Machine learning and artificial intelligence also help save time—but not, say, by sorting through video for targets. Instead, these tools can automate mundane and repetitive tasks to move information more quickly through the bureaucracy, said Col. Molly Solsbury, who leads the 513th Military Intelligence Brigade at CENTCOM.

“Cut, paste. ‘Did we have the right people on the email? Does that email make it to all the different individuals and entities?’” Solsbury said.

The result is more eyes on the operation, which can also improve accuracy.

“If there's a contradictory piece of information out there about the target, everybody knows where that information is coming from and where they can go to collaborate on that specific” intelligence point, she said. 

The CENTCOM exercise was an offshoot of the sixth Scarlet Dragon game that the Army runs out of Fort Bragg.

“The beauty of a combatant command headquarters” pioneering these kinds of solutions, Cogbill said, is “One, we're inherently joint; two, we're multi-domain because we have all the components, now to include space; and three, we are constantly training and building combat readiness because we're a warfighting headquarters. 

“And in the case of CENTCOM, you know, we have the CENTCOM [area of responsibility], which is a giant sandbox, figuratively, literally, for us to go out and experiment. And so every time we're training, we can just tweak the variables and see what kind of result we get.”