It’s all about the science…and the people who do it,
and the problems they solve.
by Mr. Steve Stark
Winning in a complex world, the multidomain battlespace: These are extraordinarily complex concepts. How will the Army operate in an area that a peer or near-peer adversary has worked very diligently to make sure that the Army cannot operate in? How will the Army counter swarms of networked, unmanned systems?
For Dr. Thomas P. Russell, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology (DASA(R&T)), envisioning and developing the capabilities and the technologies that the Army will need in five years or 30 years is not a job that includes crystal balls or tea leaves. It’s science, and lots of it, done by scientists, and lots of them.
Science, he said in an Oct. 27 interview with Army AL&T, is a process of discovering and understanding the world we live in. “As we discover more and more about the world we live in, and we understand those fundamental principles, eventually we start thinking about how we can use that knowledge we’ve developed to start solving problems.”
Right now, Army science and technology (S&T) is working to solve a lot of problems. “We’re developing new capabilities or technologies that could serve to either help the military or help the commercial market space.” Those capabilities, of course, are intended first for the military. And the problems to be solved are specific:
- Precision fires and air and missile defense.
- Next Generation Combat Vehicle.
- Future Vertical Lift (FVL).
- The network and command, control, communications and intelligence.
- Soldier lethality.
In addition, there are the people and the laboratories that make those things possible, which includes the Army’s S&T laboratory enterprise network, S&T workforce development, Army collaboration with the other services, international partners and industry. Finally, there’s the issue of transitioning technology, or getting needed capabilities into the hands of Soldiers.
A REBALANCING ACT
Russell earned his doctorate in chemistry in energetic materials, which are substances that contain lots of energy and release it rapidly to “do work,” in the physics sense of the term—moving energy from one place or form to another. When he went to work for the U.S. military in 1990, Russell didn’t think it would become his career. However, like a lot of those in the acquisition, logistics and technology fields, he found the research meaningful, a way to be a part of something greater than himself. Plus, he found the hard problems DOD was trying to solve to be deeply engaging.
He started his career with DOD working as a research scientist with the Navy, spent several years working with the Air Force and came to the Army in 2013 as the director of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.
It was, in fact, Russell who suggested the science and technology theme of this edition of Army AL&T, and he backed up the suggestion with more than two dozen articles in this special section on rebalancing the Army’s S&T portfolio.
Rebalancing the portfolio is a process, he said, of “looking at the potential threats in the future from our adversaries. What I mean by that is, we’ve been operating at war for probably a decade and a half or more. And our adversaries have been watching the way we operate. They’ve been building capabilities to offset or attempt to offset those strategic advantages we have today.” And that presents the possibility that, in the future, those “threats may put us in a situation where we’ll be overmatched by our adversaries. So rebalancing is about how we strategically align the S&T portfolio to address those emerging or evolving threats that our adversaries will present to us.”
The emphasis is on the evolutionary nature of the threats. “That’s not just now in the near term. … We’re not focused on just where the puck is today, but where the puck will be in the future,” he said, paraphrasing hockey great Wayne Gretzky.
Rebalancing, he continued, “is aligning ourselves to more effectively address the potential future threats and beginning to look at what technologies we need to create to evolve our capabilities. It’s also about ensuring we have a more balanced investment portfolio for the future of the Army.”
Modernization, Russell said, can and should encompass both the near and long term. “There are very specific things we’re doing today in the Army to address near-term shortfalls, or to modernize our equipment to ensure that we have the capability that we need today. But there are also, in the S&T investments, things that we’re doing that I would say would potentially modernize our force in 2030. It’s all part of modernization.” And all part of the same evolutionary process.
PRECISION FIRES, AIR AND MISSILE DEFENSE
Precision fires and air and missile defense are top priorities in Army S&T research. The former is about more accurate artillery and surface-to-surface missiles, which the Army calls kinetic capabilities. Those capabilities will be more accurate, smarter and with longer range. Or, the future could be artillery- or missile-like capabilities in an environment where artillery or missiles could not be used. Missile defense will include nonkinetic capabilities, such as directed-energy weapons.
The future—and the midterm—will include precision missiles with a 35-kilometer range that can loiter, provide operators with a full-motion video view-on-target on a linked tablet, and eliminate tanks or other high-value targets. The portfolio of capabilities also includes the ability to defeat collaborative or swarming threats. In the successful proof-of-principle phase, the goal was for a single operator to be able to fire and guide six missiles against four static and two moving targets.
For other means of air and missile defense, directed-energy weapons, specifically high-energy lasers, offer a lot of promise as part of a layered defense, said Russell. While they may not be the ultimate weapon, they will have a use on the battlefield of the future. “It’s going to be a partnership between kinetic capabilities and directed-energy capabilities, including lasers, because lasers and directed-energy capabilities aren’t going to be able to provide a single solution to every challenge we face from an air missile defense perspective.” In the nearer term, Russell said, one of the benefits will be the lower overall cost of laser defenses.
An example of the utility of directed-energy weapons is defense against the increasing use of small unmanned aerial systems (UASs), either as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms or as mules for explosives. “At least in the near term, its benefit is based on the cost equation,” he said. While “it does cost quite a bit to build a laser system,” after that initial outlay, lasers are a great deal cheaper to use. The real issue is “how much it costs me for the stored energy to be able to provide a laser pulse that will take down a target.”
In the case of small UASs and “other lower-cost targets, you don’t necessarily want to spend lots of money with missile systems to take out a counter-UAS,” which would not only be expensive but could be far less accurate, like using a shotgun to take out a fly.
While lasers have been around since the 1960s and commercial lasers are everywhere, Russell noted that “we haven’t really gotten to the point where we’ve been able to operationalize lasers at the cost-effective size, weight and power necessary to make them operationally relevant. I think we’re on the verge of being able to do that. I think, in this evolving modernization process, you’ll see laser systems coming online over the next 10 years that provide defensive capabilities for both mounted and unmounted units.” Those capabilities will continue to evolve and will become another “tool in the toolbox. It won’t be the only tool in the toolbox. … But it’s very exciting.”
NEXT GENERATION COMBAT VEHICLE
When Russell talks of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, it’s about a host of possible concepts and platforms. So, while the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) “is where we’re at today,” it’s a long way from what the Army may need in the future. For example, Russell said, autonomy, whether in the air or on the ground, is a big part of where the Army sees its vehicular strategy going. The S&T programs are looking at autonomy and teaming, meaning that both air and ground unmanned vehicles will be able to operate and navigate by themselves as part of a collaborative, man-unmanned team, without a pilot actively guiding the vehicle. The man-unmanned teaming approach launched in 2009 (See “Wingman Is First Step Toward Weaponized Robotics,” Page 86), and has already shown great promise. The future, however, will see a great deal more collaboration between platforms.
S&T programs are looking to answer difficult questions about where vehicle autonomy can go, aided by artificial intelligence and advanced sensors. “Can we enhance the mobility, and can we increase the speed, the speed-to-contact, maneuver-to-contact?” Russell said. Or, how can a manned ground vehicle teamed with unmanned air or ground vehicles find, engage and defeat an adversary that’s entrenched and well-protected, before the enemy detects a potential attack?
“If I look out 10 years from now, there may be other ground–vehicle capabilities that we need that would be the next generation. And again, it’s not just JLTV we’re talking [about],” Russell said. “Are we going to have Abrams [tanks] for the next 50 years, or are we going to develop something that would be different from a tank? Or do we really even need a tank? Could we develop a different concept of operations, based on new ground vehicle capabilities that emerge from technologies” the Army is developing or looking to develop now?
Part of that next generation vehicle strategy is the Robotic Wingman program. The potential there is huge, not just for applying more force, but also for using those vehicles for sensing, for scouting and providing highly accurate situational awareness. “When I say a Soldier is operating three wingmen, it could be one air vehicle and two ground vehicles,” Russell said.
As to the probability that a potential future adversary could be working on similar technology, Russell said, it’s not just about the machines, it’s also about the people, and that’s where he thinks the United States has the advantage. It’s about “humans and how you train, and the rest of the DOTMLPF [doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel and facilities],” he said.
“In the end, I think one of the things that is to our strategic advantage over a lot of our adversaries is our DOTMLPF process. And that’s how we integrate material and technological solutions and how we use them to our advantage based on the overall process.”
FUTURE VERTICAL LIFT
The current Army fleet of rotary-wing aircraft are Cold War-era relics. They’ve been upgraded and enhanced over the years again and again, but, according to Russell, the basic platforms have reached the limits of their potential. “The three major things we’re trying to overcome today are speed, range and ‘maneuverability at the X’,” he said. The X is where the craft is going to land. “That’s been a lot of the focus today. Right now, rotorcraft aircraft have limitations—what their speed is, which relates to range, and then of course there’s maneuverability.” So the issue with vertical lift is much like the issue with combat vehicles: It’s all about mobility. That, Russell continued, is “part of this integrated multidomain battle problem.”
Currently in S&T, Russell said, “we’re looking to see if we can move beyond” the limits of available technology as it has been applied to current vehicles. “Are there ways that we can actually change that, or can we design different kinds of vehicles and structures that would take us to the next level of range, speed, maneuverability, which includes a lift-of-weight capability?”
The Joint Multi-Role (JMR) demonstrator is the next step, he said. JMR is an ongoing technology demonstration process, which is a program of record to further FVL (see “Science and Technology Supporting Future Army Aviation” on Page 96). “JMR is a technology demonstrator. There are currently two companies [Sikorsky Aircraft with Boeing, and Bell Helicopter] that are technology demonstrators, one of which is rotary-wing capability [Sikorsky–Boeing], and the other one [Bell] is a tilt-rotor.” Sikorsky-Boeing’s prototype has counter-rotating rotors, which provide more stability than conventional single-rotor aircraft, plus greater efficiency and lift capacity.
Another major focus of this rebalancing act is the network. “In the S&T world today, we’re looking at a variety of different programs that will help us understand what the network of the future will look like. There’s nothing wrong with the network that we’re developing today. It’s a good capability.” Still, it’s today’s capability.
In the future, multidomain battle will “require something that’s probably much more robust, much more interoperable. It may be highly heterogeneous, and what I mean by that is that a dismounted group may need a network that’s different than a mounted group of Soldiers, but those networks need to be interoperable so that they can communicate,” the way that cellphones move seamlessly between networks. There is also the coalition environment to consider, he said. “How do I do that exact same thing with my coalition partners? How do I know what information I can and can’t share?”
And then there’s mobility, which is a major thrust. “In the future, I don’t want to have a network guy, I don’t want to sit and wait for a bunch of signal Soldiers that are going to be setting up the network.” That future network would come into whatever environment and it would “basically set up itself, sort of like what happens with your cellphone. I get off a plane in another country and it detects the network, and [based on my plan] it connects me to that network.” Unlike with a cellular network, its infrastructure would follow it.
Today’s networks are robust, but not nearly as mobile and self-contained as they will need to be in the future, Russell said. “When we talk about all these technologies, they become highly dependent upon our connectivity and having this robust, heterogeneous, highly dynamic network that is going to evolve as partners and as different capabilities come and go within that operational space.” It’s the military’s own internet of things that “drives different technologies and capabilities that we, militarily, will need.”
Increasing a Soldier’s capacity to be more lethal is only partly about weapons. It can also mean seeing the battlespace more clearly than the enemy, as well as gaining a better understanding of Soldiers to help them be more resilient and make decisions more quickly—and providing the kinds of technology that will enable that.
Continuously improving Soldiers’ situational understanding is a major part of this. That means, Russell said, ensuring “that they get information that’s required for them to execute the mission … without overloading them to the point that they’re not able to execute.” There could be a variety of new ways to keep the Soldier aware, using different mechanisms to help update information. That could include augmented reality that overlays information on the Soldier’s field of view, haptic feedback (the most common haptic feedback mechanism is phone vibration) that tells the Soldier to duck, turn left or turn right, or even audio feedback.
“We’re not there yet,” Russell said, but there are “technologies currently—it’s in some of the laboratories—where I can actually fuse [situational awareness] information through” a heads-up display so that “it’s projecting the environment, the sensory environment, the information [networked sensors are getting] onto the Soldier’s field of view.” That technology is not a reality, yet, but “it’s a major focus in Soldier lethality.”
“It’s really the integration of all these things to enhance situational awareness,” Russell continued. “One of the things you have to be careful about is not overloading the human. That’s why there’s a focus on technologies that help to reduce the Soldier’s cognitive load. On a future battlefield, the difference between us and them could come down to whose warfighters are less burdened by needless information.
“A real challenge to this is not the materiel piece,” Russell said. “It’s really understanding how the human can receive and process information so that we can actually optimize their ability to make those decisions with these decision aids.”
The future of autonomy, software-intensive weapon systems, advanced networking and lots of sensing technologies will not be possible without decision-support capabilities to help Soldiers not get instantly overloaded with information. That’s where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. While we encounter AI on a daily, even hourly basis, from personal assistance technologies like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri to Microsoft Word’s -grammar-check function, there’s a big difference between the home or office and the battlefield.
To make the best use of AI and all of the other software that the Army will employ, Russell said, the Army will have to code and update code much faster than it does today. The auto industry, he said, is doing interesting things with software updates and patches. The “vehicle itself actually updates on a regular basis. … They download software to update the algorithms.”
That could make a big difference in the Army’s next generation combat vehicles. If “I can update the algorithms for efficiencies in the engines, if I can put sensors on and change how the sensors actually behave and the way they detect and so on, based on software updates,” Russell said, it increases the capabilities available to the Soldier. “We have to start thinking about the different clock cycles of updating and modernization of the force. The software piece is going to probably occur at a much faster time scale than the hardware piece.”
The other part of that equation, Russell said, is that, with more recent weapon platforms being more software-based, “they have to be updated on a much faster timeline,” and to do that “we need to do the science and engineering to look at how you validate software that’s being developed. How do you ensure you have protected environments where, in a developmental process,” the software doesn’t inadvertently provide a way in for people who should not have access to the software? “There is a lot to do in a -software-based” future, and that’s why “you really need to move to more of an open architecture so that we can actually take advantage of this multiple time scale for modernization.”
The United States has a lot of catching up to do after a decade and a half at war in Iraq and Afghanistan—a particular kind of war that global rivals and potential adversaries have observed intently. Russell has no doubt that the Army’s capabilities will be up to the task if called upon to confront and defeat a near-peer adversary.
For Russell, the key to all of Army S&T is the S&T workforce. Indeed, he refers to the personnel of the Army S&T enterprise as “the crown jewel of the laboratory community.” Maintaining that workforce is “about being able to recruit and retain the best and brightest people that are interested in solving challenging problems that have tremendous purpose, and that purpose is protecting Soldiers on a daily basis—and national security. And there are a lot of us that are more interested in serving in this way, than [in] money,” he said.
“There’s a significant portion of our population in the science and engineering field that are really interested in serving,” he continued. Maybe that’s not in uniform, but by contributing—as Russell himself has done—to national security, to what the Soldier needs every day. “The laboratory system actually provides that unique opportunity if you’re coming out of graduate school and you want to be a scientist or engineer but you want to serve your country in a way that will protect its security,” you can.
It’s an attractive proposition, because for budding scientists and engineers, the Army has “a bunch of very interesting problems,” Plus, he said, “There’s a purpose to what we do. It’s not just science for science’s sake. It’s not just engineering for engineering’s sake. There’s an outcome, and I think that’s a tremendously satisfying experience as a scientist or engineer.”
The biggest issue, Russell said, has been getting the word out to future Army scientists and engineers about “what happens in our laboratory systems so that they can decide whether they want to work in the commercial world or in the government world.” That’s changing, he said, because “we’re now beginning to do a much broader outreach across the country in trying to get exposure of what we really work on in the laboratories.” Internships are particularly effective because future workforce members think, “ ‘I just had no idea what you guys really did here. This is fabulous, how do I get a job?’ At that point, it’s no longer about could I make an extra $10,000-20,000 a year. It’s about, ‘These are really interesting problems.’ ”
That’s not too different from how DOD snagged Russell. “Speaking for myself,” he said, “coming to the government to work in the laboratory,” he’d figured he would maybe work three to five years in a government lab. “Here I am, 28 years later, still serving as a civilian but serving at the Department of Defense as a scientist and engineer to ensure that we can maintain our principles as a nation.”
STEVE STARK is senior editor of Army AL&T magazine. He holds an M.A. in creative writing from Hollins University and a B.A. in English from George Mason University. In addition to more than two decades of editing and writing about the military and S&T, he is the best-selling ghostwriter of several consumer-health oriented books and an award-winning novelist.
This article is published in the January – March 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
Subscribe to Army AL&T News, the premier online news source for the Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (AL&T) Workforce.