I spent part of last week in Fayetteville at a two-day event, the AUSA Warfighter Summit & Exposition, at the Crown Complex. The AUSA is the Association of the United States Army, an organization that has been around for more than 70 years advocating for the Army and a strong national defense in general. Fayetteville is home, of course, to Fort Bragg, the largest Army base by population, home to the U.S. Army Forces Command, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Joint Special Operations Command, XVIII Airborne Corps, and the 82nd Airborne Division, among other tenants.
One of the most interesting sessions was a roughly half-hour talk by General James C. McConville, chief of staff of the Army. There were many officers and enlisted personnel in the audience, and it felt like a conversation between soldiers. McConville, who once flew attack helicopters, talked candidly to a generation of leaders who will be running the Army over the next couple of decades.
But it also would have been an interesting conversation for anyone who wants to do business with the Army, because he talked about what the service needs, and how it is changing to meet new challenges, particularly from China. If you want to know what the Army plans to buy, it is a good idea to know how it will fight.
These are dangerous times, McConville said. “I’m not sure, at least in my 41-plus years, that I’ve seen a more potentially dangerous time for our country and for our military.”
“Take a look at Russia. In our national defense strategy, we now call them an ‘acute threat.’ I think Ukrainians would call them something else. It was unimaginable, not too long ago, that we could have an unprovoked attack like this on the European continent. Unimaginable.”
China, meanwhile, has been building what McConville described as “a world-class military to challenge us and to challenge the world order.”
The last few decades, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and irregular warfare have been a major focus of U.S. military strategy. That was understandable, given al-Qaida, ISIS, al-Shabab and other violent, non-state extremist groups around the world. And they are still a threat, “and in some cases they’re actually getting worse,” he said.
But the focus has shifted to preparing for large-scale combat operations, and dealing with more aggressive state actors, Russia and China. For many of the Army’s leaders, “this is an inflection point. It’s a major shift in how we do business,” said McConville.
The Army is going to have to be much more mobile, he says, and fight in multiple domains, like cyber. Even the logistics of command and control will change.
“Many of us had large command and control stationary nodes when we were in Afghanistan and Iraq. Company op centers had stadium seats, big screens, big tents. They were very stationary.” These won’t survive in future wars, he said. “Our C2 nodes in the future fight have got to be small and they’ve got to be mobile.”
Our adversaries will try to disrupt our battlefield communications networks and global positioning technology. Which means the Army has to figure out how to “operate in isolated, dispersed environments. Things that we depend on, communications, are probably going to be jammed. We need to operate where we may not have” GPS data. A big focus of our military will be keeping communications and data flowing despite hostile jamming efforts.
He talked about Project Convergence, which is an attempt to tie all the technological eyes on and above the battlefield into a command center that can quickly spot a threat and eliminate it with the most cost-effective weapon.
The key is passing data from many sources very quickly to commanders and shooters.
“The idea was that we could have different sensors – call them radars, call them F-35s – all different types of radars on the battlefield, or sensors on the battlefield, that could quickly pick up enemy systems and then move them into some kind of integrated battle command system. Take advantage of artificial intelligence. Take advantage of systems that deal with different types of data and quickly move them to the right shooter that can take care of that system and do it very, very quickly.”
And it has to not only let our services pass target data back and forth fast, but also exchange data quickly with allies. Folks in command centers can’t be on phones or swiveling in their chairs from terminal to terminal because systems don’t talk.
“The secret sauce is how we pass data very, very quickly,” said McConville. The ideal system will also quickly present multiple options to commanders, so they aren’t forced to counter a relatively inexpensive threat, for example, with an expensive missile.
One of the biggest challenges is the weaponized drone revolutionizing the battle space.
“We’re looking for innovative solutions to get after lethal drones on the battlefield. They’re going to be a threat from violent extremists to great powers,” said McConville.
He likened the problem to the proliferation of IEDs – roadside bombs – in the early 2000s. The military launched a technology and training response.
“We’re going to see the same thing with counter-UAS,” said McConville, “we just want to move much, much quicker.”
A lot of new technology is on the way to places like Fort Bragg, including 24 “signature systems that you’re going to see coming into your units very shortly.” Systems like Mobile Protected Firepower program – basically a light tank that can be flown to the battlefield in a C-17, for example. And the IVAS augmented reality headset. The Army is testing mid-range missiles capable of hitting enemy ships hundreds of miles from land, which could be helpful to, say, an island nation in the South China Sea threatened with invasion.
“And that’s really what all of our modernization efforts are about, to provide multiple options for the joint force and multiple dilemmas for our adversaries,” said McConville.
But the most important parts of warfighting are the soldiers and the mastery of their craft, said McConville. Even though future wars are going to be fought over vast geographic areas – on land, air, sea and in space – “we still need great small units. They are the ones that are going to do it.”
“It’s why we spend time on foundational readiness, making sure that we give our troops the time to develop small units and individual soldiers that are masters of their craft through a deliberate process and expert coaching.” That, and implementing the best talent management system “to get the right kind of people in the right jobs at the right time.”
“All you have to do is take a look at the Russian forces in Ukraine to see what happens,” said McConville, “when you don’t invest in high-quality people, when you don’t have a professional non-commissioned officer corps, when you don’t have junior leaders and soldiers who can use mission commands and operate off the commander’s intent. You can have some of the world’s best warfighting capabilities, but they are not worth much if you don’t invest in the actual warfighters.”
On Tuesday last week, before the AUSA conference, another military-focused gathering was held in Fayetteville, at Fayetteville Technical Community College. The Defense Technology Symposium was put on by the North Carolina Military Business Center, the North Carolina Defense Technology Transition Office and the North Carolina Board of Science, Technology & Innovation. It featured a lot of smart people from academia, the military, state government and industry discussing how to accelerate getting the latest technology in the hands of warfighters, and how North Carolina-based R&D can play a bigger role in that. You can look at the slides from the presentations by going here.