• DARPA officials envision a future battlefield made up of a collection of smaller systems in all warfighting domains communicating with one another and tailored to each mission.
     DARPA officials envision a future battlefield made up of a collection of smaller systems in all warfighting domains communicating with one another and tailored to each mission.

DARPA Pieces Together Combat Technology Mosaic

October 1, 2018
By George I. Seffers
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Researchers lay the tiles for the future fight.

The director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Steven Walker, pictures the future battlefield as a mosaic of lower-cost, less complex systems linked together in a vast number of ways to create desired, interwoven effects tailored to any scenario. The agency, known as DARPA, is standing up a new program office and investing in an array of technologies, from artificial intelligence to robotics to systems for hypersonic flight and space, to make that picture a reality.

The mosaic concept is based on the premise that the United States is losing its technological advantage in an era when advanced systems are becoming widely and easily available. Rather than large, monolithic systems, the mosaic draws together simpler systems to suit each mission. DARPA officials refer to those smaller systems as tiles, similar to the tiles artists use to create mosaics.

“It’s more mosaic than puzzle,” Walker says. “Puzzle pieces have to fit together a certain way, so they have to be preplanned to fit. Where we’d like to take it is more of a mosaic. You have a series of tiles, and you can put these tiles together any way you want for any mission you want to accomplish in real time.”

Integrating simpler systems in an infinite number of ways is designed to overwhelm potential adversaries with complexity. “It’s very difficult to take on a system like that, a system made up of large numbers of smaller things that can talk together and achieve the mission,” Walker adds.

DARPA officials already have taken several steps toward realizing that future battlefield, but the agency expects a flurry of upcoming events, including the establishment of an Adaptive Capabilities Office. “This office is just standing up now. It’s a program office—not a technical office. It’s really focused on building new architectures for the future fight against a peer adversary in critical areas of the world,” Walker reports.

The office will experiment and develop a modeling and simulation capability to explore how the different technologies work together. “The trick, then, is going to be working with the military services to combine those different elements and actually make it real. Part of the idea of this Adaptive Capabilities Office is that it will work with the services to help glue these different pieces together in new warfighting architectures for the services to go use,” Walker explains. “They have representatives in the office and are actually bringing money to help develop those architectures.”

Communication is a critical piece of the mosaic. “These are systems that can be brought together in real time, communicate with each other and get a mission accomplished,” Walker offers. “To achieve that vision, we have to focus on communications technologies [and] the ability to have different systems message to other systems when they weren’t designed to do that.”

But he also lists the communication piece as one of the more challenging elements. For the mosaic concept to work, the communication technologies must avoid detection and be capable of withstanding electromagnetic and cyber attacks. A lot of different technologies are required to achieve those goals, Walker indicates.

Communication hinges on effective and efficient use of the electromagnetic spectrum, which will be enabled by artificial intelligence (AI). DARPA’s Spectrum Collaboration Challenge is exploring the use of AI and machine learning to do that. “We have about 30 teams that have come together and are competing in a three-year-long challenge to look at how radios using these AI tools would automatically allocate spectrum among themselves,” Walker elaborates.

In addition, DARPA recently selected teams for its nearly $1.5 billion Electronics Resurgence Initiative (ERI), an effort designed to spur innovation in the microelectronics industry, partly by using AI. That innovation will affect future combat systems. “One of the things the ERI will contribute to is having more compute power in smaller packages. If you think about lots of small systems cooperating with each other, you’re going to need that performance improvement. ERI will help us develop technologies and components we can use,” Walker suggests.

Machine intelligence is so integral to the military’s future that DARPA is investing in a third wave of AI technologies. The first wave consisted of rules-based systems. Walker cites TurboTax as one example. The current second wave focuses on machine learning and deep learning, which are restricted by the datasets they learn on and use.

The next wave will allow AI to learn about and adapt to its environment, even if that environment is constantly changing. “We’re pretty excited about pushing AI in that direction. We’re going to be hiring several new AI program managers, up to about five new program managers in the next six months,” Walker reveals.

Additionally, DARPA should be releasing major AI-related broad agency announcements. “You’ll be hearing about a lot more AI community engagement with universities and industry over the next six months,” Walker says. “We intend to do in AI what we did in electronics over the last year. I can anticipate a major conference next summer, or shortly thereafter, summarizing what we hope to do in this third wave of AI.”

The mosaic will include systems in every domain—air, land, maritime, space and cyber—all working together. Some will be operated by warfighters and others autonomously but with a person in the loop. “It’s going to be a very joint battlefield. Many of the services are referring to it as multidomain,” Walker notes.

He cites DARPA’s Gremlins program, which envisions launching groups of small unmanned aerial systems from aircraft such as bombers, transport planes or fighters jets while those planes are out of range of adversary defenses. When the drones complete their mission, they could return to the larger aircraft.

Hypersonic aircraft or missiles also may prove vital on the future battlefield. Hypersonic systems fly at five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5. Russia and China are known to be investing heavily in hypersonic technology to outdo U.S. missile defense systems. The Defense Department sought $257 million for hypersonic technology research in its 2019 budget request, a boost of more than 130 percent over the previous fiscal year.

DARPA is involved in multiple hypersonic technology programs. For example, the Advanced Full Range Engine program seeks to develop and demonstrate a new aircraft propulsion system that could operate over the full range of speeds required, from low-speed takeoff through hypersonic flight. The Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, is a joint effort of DARPA and the U.S. Air Force to develop critical technologies that will enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile. DARPA and the Air Force also have teamed up for the Tactical Boost Glide program to provide air-launched, tactical-range hypersonic boost glide systems. In a boost glide system, a rocket accelerates its payload to high speeds. The payload then separates from the rocket and glides unpowered to its destination. Additionally, DARPA has joined forces with the U.S. Army on the Operational Fires program, an effort initiated this year to build a novel ground-launched system allowing advanced weapons to penetrate enemy air defenses.

Hypersonic flight will benefit long-range war situations, such as in the Pacific. “Certainly, we are making progress in hypersonic programs. We have performance objectives, survivability objectives, affordability objectives, and we’re getting through some of our ground tests. You should start seeing some of those vehicles being tested in 2019 and in 2020,” Walker says.

He also lists space technologies as critical to the future warfighter. Earlier this year, DARPA kicked off the Blackjack program, which will attempt to develop a low-orbit constellation that provides global coverage. Rather than make a costly and time-consuming investment in another large satellite at geosynchronous orbit, program officials intend to develop a number of low-cost, smaller satellites at low earth orbit. “We have proposals in hand. We’ll be evaluating them. We’ll be moving out on that program with the Air Force as a partner,” Walker states.

The agency also may partner with the commercial sector, which already plans to develop small satellite constellations. According to Euroconsult, a global consulting firm specializing in space markets, the small satellite market is experiencing a significant expansion, with about 7,000 small satellites expected to be launched over the next 10 years. That is a sixfold increase over the past decade, the firm states in a written announcement.

Another DARPA space program, the Launch Challenge, seeks to demonstrate the ability to launch payloads to orbit on extremely short notice, with no prior knowledge of the payload, destination orbit or launch site. Program officials predict that the launch environment of tomorrow will more closely resemble that of airline operations. “Demonstrating a responsive capability, along with an affordable capability, will be the main objective of that program,” Walker says.

Last but not least in DARPA’s final frontier programs, the Experimental Spaceplane will be an entirely new class of hypersonic aircraft that will provide short-notice, low-cost access to space. The program aims to achieve a capability well out of reach today—launches to low earth orbit in days, compared with the months or years of preparation currently needed to get a single satellite on orbit. “Bringing responsiveness to the space launch community will do a lot of good in terms of reducing costs but will also give us the capability to replenish and reconstitute satellites quickly,” Walker says.

The sheer volume and diversity of systems included in the future warfare mosaic may seem daunting, but Walker suggests that DARPA has found the proper approach. “When you think about it all at one time, it’s overwhelming and complex. Part of what DARPA does is to take on chunks of that in certain programs and demonstrate that you can do pieces of it,” he says.

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