WASHINGTON — In the U.S. Army’s second annual aviation-focused exercise, a unit from the Netherlands digitally requested a casualty evacuation from the U.S., marking new success interoperating with foreign partners.
What exercises with allies and partners have shown over the years is that this type of interoperability remains challenging, but military officials say repetition and practice are key to making strides.
The casualty evacuation mission was “a good example of that progress there,” Brig. Gen. Brandon Tegtmeier, deputy commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, told Defense News in an interview following the completion of the exercise known as EDGE 22, which took place at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, earlier this month.
“That’s just a small thing,” he said. “We have a lot of progress to make still, but again, a really good step forward.”
Additionally, the Army reported a call for fire was achieved through a Dutch-run waveform.
The Army’s EDGE series of exercises began last year and is slated to continue annually in coordination with Project Convergence, a larger event in the fall. EDGE is considered the practice round for the aerial tier of PC. This year, Project Convergence, now in its third iteration, brought in international partners for the first time; EDGE then followed.
Project Convergence examines and tests how the Army plans to fight against near-peer adversaries across all domains using capability slated for fielding in roughly 2030 and beyond.
EDGE, this year, was focused on a European theater scenario centered around a wet gap crossing. The 82nd Airborne and other allied units at the exercise were tasked with defeating an enemy’s integrated air defense systems. That would then lead to the second phase, introducing maneuver forces through air assaults to seize two different pieces of terrain.
Netherlands, Italy and Germany were active participants in the exercise, while Australia, Canada, France and the United Kingdom were observers.
German and Italian forces participated in the combined air assault with the 82nd. The Germans brought their German Future Soldier System, and Italian soldiers brought their Targeting and Communication Command Kit.
The Netherlands contributed its Joint Air Ground Gateway, a command-and-control tactical node, and was able to successfully integrate the node into the Windows Tactical Assault Kit (WINTAK), a map-based application that provide operators position data, a chat function and mission planning capabilities across a shared picture.
The exercise relied on the Variable Message Format communication protocol, understood by all NATO forces, to communicate.
“I think everybody would admit we are not where we need to be with our allies,” Tegtmeier said. “I think having those nations present out at Edge 22 is a huge step forward in terms of fixing that problem.”
Exercises like EDGE, he noted, generate new technology ideas and new possibilities to increase interoperability.
In the scenario, the 82nd’s Tactical Command Post served as a Combined Joint Task Force headquarters. The headquarters was positioned well outside the range of enemy long-range fires that it would not have been able to assume using current fleet capabilities. The Army expects to have vast improvements when it comes to speed and range from its Future Vertical Lift fleet with a planned fielding timeline of 2030.
The work the Army did as a coalition with its allies “really informed our gaps when it comes to cross-domain solutions within the coalition,” Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen, who oversees the Army’s FVL development, told Defense News in a recent interview.
“It went much better than expected,” he added.
The exercise also helped the service and its coalition partners further understand the technical challenge of achieving the ultimate interoperability goal — being able to work from a single screen in the CJTF environment.
The coalition used a cross-domain solution certified waveform to perform a number of vignettes in which sensitive but unclassified data was passed into a secret enclave and then out to an unclassified one.
“The reason that’s important is really being able to go from strategic to tactical, tactical to strategic in a very agile manner,” Rugen said, referring to the way digital data was securely passed between those performing the tactical mission and the headquarters coordinating the mission.
But coalition interoperability remains a challenge, Rugen said, because it’s not yet clear what data should be passed and what the U.S. and its partners should keep to themselves.
“We should have the ability to filter that [data] out but still provide useful information to our coalition partners and vice versa,” Rugen said. “There’s an ability to filter out that metadata and then give useful things to either the tactical edge or the strategic decision makers.”
Findings at EDGE will inform policies going forward, he noted.
Moving forward, the coalition needs to come to a decision on what waveforms and databases are used as a standard of operation and construct a gateway that allows the right data to flow, Rugen said. Then that gateway has to be interoperable within everyone’s network.
In EDGE, the Army used a variety of waveforms including TSM and Link-16.
During the exercise, “we didn’t necessarily care what the parallel network was, if somebody has a different one. … It doesn’t matter what the black box is,” Rugen said. In other words, the exercise proved interoperability as a concept, but the Pentagon and its allies and partners will have to determine what hardware and software will be standard.
The Army, over 19 days at EDGE, said it achieved 67 technical objectives with 34 first-time events using over 17 distinct FVL-related technologies and capabilities.
These included experimentation with an Air-Launched Effects swarm launched by a surrogate aircraft flying as Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft. The swarms evaluated at EDGE mark the largest ALE-small swarm to date. The Army deployed about 25 drones in four waves using the service’s “Wolfpack” concept for intelligent swarms, allowing the aircraft to stimulate, hunt, kill and assess threats.
The Army also used two waveforms that allowed the swarm to double ALE range from missions executed last year.
And the service’s Aerial Tier Network (ATN), which provides digital and voice communication, saw further refinement and improvement, according to Rugen.
The Army also evaluated a number of dual-use sensors typically used for protection, but, at EDGE, were used for lethal effects. Radar warning receivers in aircraft cockpits, for example, transferred data of incoming fire through the network to the CJTF to be used for targeting, Rugen said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.