The Army wants smarter sensors to ease soldiers’ ‘cognitive burden’

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Elise Denning, assigned to Artificial Intelligence Integration Center, conducts maintenance on an unmanned aerial system in preparation for Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, on October 20, 2021.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Elise Denning, assigned to Artificial Intelligence Integration Center, conducts maintenance on an unmanned aerial system in preparation for Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, on October 20, 2021. U.S. Army / pc. Destiny Jones

New intelligence and electronic-warfare tools aim to help commanders get data faster.

AUGUSTA, Ga.—The Army wants to make sure commanders and soldiers get vital sensor data in near real-time. So the service’s shop for intelligence and electronic warfare is focusing on developing tools to do that without trawling through a morass of information.

In the past, Army senior leaders weren’t very concerned about electronic warfare, according to Mark Kitz, who leads the Army’s Program Executive Office Intelligence Electronic Warfare and Sensors. But that’s changing, in part due to world events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“So one of the things we've learned not just in this conflict, but over the last five years, is that electronic warfare is an enabler and our enemies, and our capabilities, are going to have to be able to function and work in a contested environment,” Kitz told Defense One at the AFCEA TechNet Augusta conference. “And so in order to understand that environment, we've got to have a collection and standoff capability to characterize that environment.”

The PEO covers “all things electronic warfare” including air, ground, and long-range sensing capabilities—all of which can support kinetic and non-kinetic effects. 

Among Kitz’s top priorities are developing prototypes for long-range sensing as well as “smart sensors that can offload some of the cognitive burden that we have on our analysts.”Those sensors would be able to aggregate data and deliver “smart suggestions” or “hypotheses or answers in that data.” 

“Data becomes key to what we do, right,” Kitz said. “We're using that data to deliver effects, whether that's a sensor-to-shooter, whether that’s sensor-to-an-intel analyst or electronic warfare analyst.” 

But there’s still the question of how to use that sensor data to deliver a specific effect for a soldier. To do that, Kitz said the PEO is investing in “standoff collection and standoff effects” and building “prototype solutions that can help our Army operate in a congested spectrum environment.” 

One of those tools is the aerial Multi-Domain Sensing System capability, or MDSS, which is designed to deliver data to analysts from nodes that are hundreds of kilometers away. It is intended to help soldiers understand far-off environments. 

Then there’s the Terrestrial Layer System that does similar long-range sensing from the ground. 

The Army announced two contracts for its Terrestrial Layer System Echelons Above Brigade in mid-August. The selected companies, General Dynamics Mission Systems and Lockheed Martin, will deliver Phase 1 prototypes for the contract valued at $163 million across the entire project. 

The Terrestrial Layer System also has a Brigade Combat Team component and together they are part of the Army’s effort to lean in on electronic warfare capabilities. 

Willie Utroska, the PEO’s deputy project manager for EW and cyber, called them “brother and sister programs” that will feed into the Army’s plans for multi-domain operations in the next decade through a tool that can visualize radio waves and “allows the commander to plan, control and manage that electromagnetic spectrum.”

“From a cyber perspective on EW and SIGINT, we're developing our platforms to allow [radio frequency] delivery of cyber effects,” Utroska told Defense One. “So over the radio waves, they can use our platforms to deliver cyber effects. The Commander, if he has to do a non lethal or non kinetic effect, it can either be electrical electronic warfare effect, or it could be a cyber effect.”

The Terrestrial Layer System programs will be the first integrated SIGINT, EW, and cyber platforms that will provide those effects, he said. 

Utroska said the PEO will deliver prototypes over the next year for its Terrestrial Layer System Brigade Combat Team, and also work to incorporate artificial intelligence into signals processing that will “lower the cognitive load on soldiers” when using EW equipment. 

Utroska said the Army will also begin linking its electronic warfare assets to networks as it rebuilds its capacity, which is a first and part of the service’s unified network plan. The TLS-BCT will go first, followed by the TLS-EAB, and an air-based system called the Multifunction Electronic Warfare Air Large pod, which delivers offensive EW capabilities and long-range sensing. 

“As we look at Capability Set 23, we will start networking our EW assets,” Utroska said. “That network is going to be important for us to get data from sensors to the commander quicker, and then allows us to process that to support non kinetic effects, non-lethal effects, and delivering [radio frequency] cyber offense as well.”

The unified network, he said, will help “get the commander information quicker, near-real time, so the commander can make those decisions.” While the EW planning tool is expected to be foundational for making sense of sensor data.   

“Our software tool, EW PMT—electronic warfare planning and management tool—resides in the command post computing environment. So our platforms reside in the sensor computing environment. So when you look at the whole common operating environment, our platforms and our products are across those,” Utroska said. “But setting those standards at the different computing environments will allow us to be interoperable and be and be agile when we develop these systems.”

One of those efforts is the Intelligence Support to Targeting, or ISTT, application, which the Army awarded in an almost $23.5 million to a contract to CyOne. This application is meant to digitally support Army fires and intel by synchronizing high payoff target-related data and then notifying users of on the battlefield to help with damage assessments, target intelligence package production, and “the ability to nominate vetted targets across the” command post computing environment, an Army PEO spokesperson told Defense One.   

“Instead of multiple systems with separate infrastructures, separate security implementations, and unique mechanisms to exchange data, these converged capabilities leverage common environments and services resulting in significant improvements in timeliness, clarity and precision. In addition—ISTT will be accessible from any workstation that has access to the CPCE server where it is hosted—no longer will units need intel-specific hardware to access these capabilities,” the spokesperson wrote via email. 

The app will be tested throughout fiscal year 2023 and fielded once that’s complete. The firm-fixed price contract extends to 2027.

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