The upcoming Project Convergence 21 will also introduce the active participation of airborne F-35 jets sharing real-time targeting information with ground troops. Credit: Courtesy US Marines.

This fall, the US military is declaring war on China.

Thankfully, no one will get hurt — it’s virtual, and it’s called Convergence 21 (PC21).

It involves F-35 jets attacking from the air, cruise missiles fired from Navy “Desert Ships,” armored ground vehicles closing in for attack and long-range precision fire weapons all receiving real-time input from helicopters, drones and artificial intelligence-enabled computer systems . . .

According to Breaking Defense, the Army’s Project Convergence war games will host the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Special Operations in a transcontinental scenario – one meant to replicate the vast distances of the Western Pacific and the technological challenges of a modern great power war.

The inaugural Project Convergence 2020 last fall tied in Marine F-35s with Army ground forces.

Its somewhat ad hoc battle network transmitted targeting data from satellites in space to a ground HQ at Fort McChord in Washington State, to artillery at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, over 1,000 miles, Breaking Defense reported.

The upcoming PC21 will link McChord and Yuma with White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico – and the 82nd Airborne Division’s HQ at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, more than twice as far.

But 2,000-plus miles is still only partway across the Pacific. It doesn’t quite get you from California to Hawaii, Breaking Defense reported.

Nevertheless, it’s a decent test of the Army’s ability to operate along the strategically located First Island Chain, the series of islands running roughly 2,500 miles from Southeast Asia to Japan.

As the first commander of Army Futures Command (AFC), Gen. John “Mike” Murray is charting the future as the Army modernizes to protect tomorrow, today. Credit: Photo courtesy US Army.

“Part of what we’re trying to replicate in some way is the battlefield geometry of the Indo-Pacific, [using] those similar geographical distances to stress these technologies,” said Col. Andre Abadie, who co-leads PC21 planning for Army Futures Command. “Clearly, it’s not the entire Indo-Pacific.”

According to Abadie, the goal would be to test the joint battle network over water in the actual Western Pacific, Breaking Defense reported.

“Long distances over water do have some impact on waveforms and the way we communicate,” he said.

But for now, it’s cheaper and easier to test it overland and entirely on US territory – and it still puts the often-immature technology through its paces in a realistic way.

It’s vital for the armed services to experiment to see what technologies actually work before they try to lock down what a future Joint All Domain Command & Control network should be, Army Futures Command chief Gen. John Murray said in a recent interview.

“We’re in the experimentation mode to understand what technology can and can’t do,” Murray said.

A soldier installs an Enhanced Highband Networking Radio Highband RF Unit (HRFU) antenna on top of a 30m mast designed to provide a C5ISR aerial layer and meshed networking capability. Credit: Courtesy US Army.

Estimated to cost about US$23 million, there are three main joint contributions in Project Convergence 21, Breaking Defense reported:

  • The Air Force brings parts of its nascent Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a network of networks meant to link the whole joint force. ABMS components at work will include GatewayOne, which can translate between Air Force and Army electronics, and DataOne, a common data management system.
  • The Navy has its Desert Ship, a test facility at White Sands that replicates the electronics and missile launchers of a destroyer’s Aegis anti-aircraft/missile defense system, including the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) to share data with other ships and aircraft across the fleet.
  • The goal for the Marine and Air Force F-35s is to link them into the network as both “sensors” – spotting targets for offensive strikes and missile defense alike – and “shooters” – striking targets spotted by others.

In addition, and in contrast to PC20 last fall, there’ll be operational ground units in PC21, not just soldiers operating specific prototypes and testbeds:

  • Special Operations teams will provide human intelligence and ground reconnaissance, feeding the battle network a kind of data it can’t get from “technical means” like airborne sensors and AI.
  • The 82nd Airborne Division will provide a heliborne assault force – equipped with the new IVAS targeting/data-sharing goggles – and a forward Tactical Command Post (TAC), linked back to its main headquarters at Fort Bragg.
  • The Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) out of Fort McChord is a three-year-old experimental unit designed specifically to coordinate far-flung, long-range operations. Its capabilities range from satellite ground stations to cyber/electronic warfare operators to HIMARS missile launchers.

In addition, prototype systems will take part.

Weapons will range from the Extended Range Cannon Artillery  howitzer and the Precision Strike Missile. Robots will include Leader-Follower self-driving supply trucks and a host of unmanned systems, ground and air, for both recon and resupply, Breaking Defense reported.

There’ll also be Army M1 Abrams heavy tanks, a modified Marine Light Armored Vehicle,  and various experimental Robotic Combat Vehicles.

In PC21, the F-35 jet will be woven directly into the exercise itself.

The concept is to bring new levels of close-air support, multi-node, multi-service warzone connectivity, and target sharing at the “speed of relevance.”

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Neil Rioja, a corpsman with 3d Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, 3d Marine Division, participates at a live-fire M240B machine gun range at Combined Arms Training Center, Camp Fuji, Japan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Scott Aubuchon)

Conceptually and tactically, the entire premise is to essentially get inside of the enemy’s decision-making loop and take decisive action fast enough to prevail in an engagement.

 “It all comes down to the ability to link databases and share data across the services. It does not matter who the data belongs to,” Murray said.

Watching all of this play out will be observers from friendly foreign nations.

Sources: Breaking Defense, National Interest, classified sources