The Army Research Lab is turning more of its attention to fighting land wars against far more technologically sophisticated adversaries than it has in the past several decades. In the coming months, the Lab will fund new programs related to highly (but not fully) autonomous drones and robots that can withstand adversary electronic warfare operations. The Lab will also fund new efforts to develop battlefield communications and sensing networks that perform well against foes with advanced electronic warfare capabilities, according to Philip Perconti, who became the director of the Lab in June.
After nearly two decades of war against determined but technologically unsophisticated foes in the Middle East, U.S. Army tech has, in some ways, fallen behind that of competing states, according to a May report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies on U.S. Army modernization.
For instance, Russia has invested heavily in anti-access / area denial technologies meant to keep U.S. forces out of certain areas. “There are regions in Donbass where no electromagnetic communications—including radio, cell phone, and television—work,” says the CSIS report. “Electronic warfare is the single largest killer of Ukrainian systems by jamming either the controller or GPS signals.”
In the coming months, the Army Research Lab will set forth on new research programs to counter these A2/AD systems. One thrust will be equipping drones and other autonomous systems with bigger brains and better networking so that they can function even when an enemy jams their ability to radio back to a human controller for direction. That’s the idea behind the Distributed and Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology program, which will experiment with robots packed with much more onboard processing.
“Autonomy will play a big role” in future Army concepts of operation, Perconti said. “And it has to be able to function within this contested environment…That’s what ARL is thinking about. More than one network, working together, with as much processing as possible on the node.”