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Army Looks to Enhance Mission Command with Robotic Swarms

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — Army Futures Command, or AFC, is exploring the extent to which swarming formations of robotic systems could be used to enhance mission-command capabilities for Army small units.

Scientists and engineers within AFC’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, or CCDC, are exploring the potential to deploy unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, and unmanned ground vehicles, or UGV, to act as complementary swarm components.

Swarming is a method of operations where multiple autonomous systems act as a cohesive unit, actively coordinating their actions.

Once mobilized, the swarms would enable small units to quickly implement manned-unmanned teaming, or MUM-T, for a variety of mission types. Data would flow quickly from the swarm back to Soldiers, mounted or dismounted, who could then provide further instructions, if necessary, to the swarms.

“The Army is looking to swarming technology to be able to execute time-consuming or dangerous tasks. The Army wants robustness, flexibility and persistence, so we’re moving away from controlling through tele-operating and trending toward commanding,” said Osie David, a chief engineer in CCDC’s center for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance — or C5ISR.

Autonomous swarms are designed to complement, not replace, human capabilities as the robotics will assist Soldiers in their complex decision-making process on the battlefield, said David, who noted that the C5ISR Center is exploring the extent to which swarming robotics can support commanders and their staff during the execution of mission command.

Mission command is the Army’s philosophy of command and a warfighting function that promotes freedom and speed of action. It combines the centralized intent from the commander with the decentralized execution of subordinate commanders, who then decide how best to achieve the commander’s objectives.

In executing mission command, commanders must have a broad perspective, understanding and knowledge of activities throughout complex operational environments. Swarming technologies provide versatility for a ground force commander to accomplish different mission sets based on the reconnaissance requirements, said RJ Regars, a systems engineer in the C5ISR Center’s Command, Power and Integration Directorate, or CP&ID.

“Swarm technology, with a potential combination of unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, is ideally suited for difficult-to-maneuver environments like cities, forests or caves. The swarms could move quickly and quietly while tracking specific targets in locations where a traditional Army formation cannot quickly maneuver while sending data to units several miles away,” Regars said. “The ability to continuously patrol an area or route and quickly convey that data back to the unit is extremely valuable.”

A key goal of the project will be how best to combine a Soldier’s cognitive skills with autonomous robotics systems.

To better define and conceptualize the best tactics and applications of future swarming capabilities for mission planning, technical experts from the center met with Soldiers and Marines at Fort Benning, Georgia, to gain insights from their operational expertise.

“The swarming technology provides versatility for how a ground force commander could employ UAS or UGV swarms to accomplish different mission sets based on the recon requirements,” said Capt. Michael McCarty, an Army Infantry officer. “It’s definitely a positive for me as a future commander.”

So far the feedback has centered on reducing cognitive overload by filtering and prioritizing data for actionable information and developing simple-to-use systems that would free up Soldiers to perform other warfighting functions.

“Swarming improves the ability to target specific locations with minimal collateral damage because we can identify our targets ahead of time. When we combine manned and unmanned systems, it’s a force multiplier that turns a platoon into a company,” said Capt. Troy Makulec, an Army Armor officer. “Whether it’s ground or aerial swarming, it improves the likelihood of survival for our Soldiers on the ground.”

By Dan Lafontaine, CCDC C5ISR Center Public Affairs

4 Responses to “Army Looks to Enhance Mission Command with Robotic Swarms”

  1. jon says:

    I was honestly thinking immediately of the COD4 comments about drone swarm, but then started to remember that my generation (I’m 33) is benefiting from the inventions seen in star-trek our parents watched. This looks pretty cool.

  2. Terry Baldwin says:

    As usual, ideas like this sound good on paper and brief well. And I see that at least some young Captains are believers. Bless their fresh faced naivete.

    Sounds a lot like “perfect situational awareness” (PSA) of the late 90s early 2000s. For example, the nascent sensor-heavy but allegedly tactically agile Stryker Brigades would be able to effortlessly decimate theoretical heavy enemy armor formations and dodge any and all counter blows because we would know exactly where the enemy was – at all times. Problem is that we could not convince the bad guys to use the Red Force Trackers. Nobody talks seriously about PSA anymore.

    Then there was the “Deep Battle” of the same timeframe. Corps HQs were going to launch “swarms” of Apaches behind the enemy’s front trace every night to decimate his second or third echelon Armor forces. The Apache Longbows in particular were designed and optimized for that mission. Against a Russian sized threat, the task was daunting. It required each helicopter to take out a dozen targets every night, return safely, rearm and refit, and do it again the next night. Still, it was supposed to be a turkey shoot for our sophisticated weapon systems and sensors and we would be able to operate with a great deal of impunity and little risk.

    Then we tried it in real life against a less sophisticated enemy. Some of you may remember the fate of the 11th Attack Aviation Regiment in OIF 1. If I recall correctly, it launched 39 Apache Longbows in a deep strike in front of 3rd ID in the run up to Baghdad. One Apache was shot down and the crew captured. The other 38 aircraft returned to base but were so shot up they were not able to get back into the fight before Baghdad fell.

    The good news is that the birds were survivable in that not one of the crews were killed. But they found practically no targets and while searching back and forth for those elusive Iraqi tanks they were vulnerable to small arms fire. The Iraqis simply had not started their vehicles and the cold tanks spoofed our thermals. No one talks about that sort of “Deep Battle” any more either.

    There is such a thing as exceeding a leaders’ practical “span of control” even when talking about autonomous or semi-autonomous systems. Small unit leaders are already information overloaded and this idea will exacerbate – not ameliorate – that problem. Our platoons are not trained, equipped, or organized, to fight like companies – or companies like battalions. Shoving more resources, assets, and “situational awareness,” down to that level begs for a major restructuring of our baseline warfighting units. Mission Command is NOT about hardware!

    Color me skeptical.

    TLB

    • jon says:

      TLB- I remember as a kid wanting to be an Apache pilot (remembering the shows on the History channel before Pawn Stars!), I remember the concept of deep battle like you mentioned, pairing OH-58’s with Apache’s in hunter kill teams. But like you said, tactics change and the enemy isn’t always playing by our same expectations.

      Similarly, when I was in command, our unit got some big fancy tents (read- 600lbs team tents) from our battalion. The commander had this idea that we would set these up and be able to do briefs and all from them at the company level supporting a BDE. I blatantly told him we wouldn’t use them, nor had the equipment to load and carry them in any type of fight. I told him I was focusing my LT’s on learning to be mobile with the infantry they were supporting, if we deployed in a decisive action fight. I learned this from being an LT in the national guard where we didn’t have tents! we slept in schools or churches or whatever when we got called to support fire fighting efforts in 07. I learned to live out of a truck, and honestly, my LT’s should be able to run their platoons in the same way on old tracking and map boards. Made me miss seeing the 1990’s tech that honestly was better than BFT for tracking what was going on.

      Flash forward to today, as a high school history teacher. I’m learning the same things teaching students- that technology is a tool, but sometimes the old things worked just fine, if not better some times. LT’s and commanders today need to learn mission control away from a terminal. Circulating with their Soldiers, priorities of work and actually training commanding people- not data in a system.

      Still- I’d like to see the swarm like in COD4…if it wasn’t hacked against us (another concern I’d have). Great write up TLB!

  3. Jim the UAS guy says:

    Terry,

    As a soon to retire Army TUAS Warrant Officer in an Apache Squadron I couldn’t agree with you more. We don’t own the electromagnetic spectrum, the weather has a say, and we all know equipment works just as advertised. Reliance on UAS is a dead end. UAS must be a nice to have, not a go/no go mission requirement. UAS is a fantastic asset against a non-sophisticated foe, against a near-peer enemy we might have to break out a compass and map and do it old school to win.

    Jim

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