DUGWAY, Utah Future Vertical Lift surrogates, new Air Launched Effects and augmented reality headsets. Over the last two weeks, the Army brought emerging technologies “into the dirt” at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah informing how soldiers will operate on the future battlefield with advanced sensor and data transfer capabilities to “close the joint kill chain.”

The Army demonstrated over 50 new “technology firsts” at its EDGE21 demonstration, besting officials’ expectations, and bringing in the 82nd Airborne Division to learn how to use the new equipment in just 11 days to provide critical feedback that will inform the next Project Convergence (PC) event and the ongoing Joint All Domain Command and Control initiative.

DAGOR vehicle launches an Air Launched Effect-Small drone at Army’s EDGE21 demonstration at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Photo: Army’s Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team.

“[EDGE21] demonstrates unequivocally that the United States Army is one of the leaders in the Department of Defense in technology development and technology fielding today. We are leading the Department of Defense into the future,” John Whitley, the acting Army secretary, told a group of reporters last Friday at the event after attending a culminating demonstration. “We’re trying to get stuff out quick and learn from the Alpha-version or the Beta-version, and not hold these things back until they’re perfect and they’re fully integrated. It’s about getting it out quick not perfect, trying it, learning on it, failing, learning from the failures and refining.”

The Army ran through two “mission threads” on the final day of the two-week EDGE21 event, simulating an Indo-Pacific “island-hopping” campaign and showcasing how the lower-tier of the air domain can connect ground, space and additional upper-tier assets to pass highly-specific targetable data in concise packages for improved situational awareness on the tactical edge.

The first scenario involved the Army using its new Artemis spy plane to scout out three targets, then deploying a Gray Eagle drone outfitted with the new Multi-Function Electronic Warfare (MFEW)-Air Large jamming pod to provide cover, sending out the new Air Launched Effects (ALE)-Large drone to provide advanced communications capability, firing off a couple new ALE-Small assets for reconnaissance before tying all the data together to take out the targets with a set of new, classified loitering munitions. 

Case in point, lots of new pieces of gear in just the first scenario, which simulated neutralizing an adversary’s Anti-Access/Aerial Denial bubble and creating additional stand-off capabilities for units. 

The new Long Range Effects, which were described only as man-in-the-loop joint lethal loitering munitions, took out two of the three targets, reflecting officials’ point that EDGE21 was about refining technologies and concepts rather than showcasing polished, mature products.

“We told our team if one of the missiles was a little bit delayed and it wasn’t going to be simultaneous, let’s save the missile for PC ‘21. They followed my guidance,” Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of the Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team, told reporters. “They could have fired that third missile, but we decided not to. But you’ll see it again at PC ‘21.”

With the targets taken out from the first scenario, the second mission thread involved an Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS)-enabled air assault where an experimental UH-60A acting as a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) surrogate used an AI algorithm-enabled payload to run aided target recognition while a ground-launched ALE-Small drone provided additional intelligence, with the data fed directly to an Air Assault Task Unit loaded on UH-60Ls serving as stand-ins for the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA).

The unit, outfitted with the IVAS headsets, received direct intelligence from the ALE-Small on an unknown target allowing for modification of the ground tactical plan in real-time. Once the unit was on the ground, a soldier was able to re-task the ALE-Small from a tablet allowing the unit to receive cover from new blindspots.

“The beauty of what we didn’t do at Project Convergence ‘20, but we did here and we’ll do at [PC] ‘21, is put the technologies in the hands of our warfighters, the kids that will actually be using it. I would hope that we learned as much about how technology is going to fundamentally change the way we fight in the future as we did about the technologies themselves,” Gen. Mike Murray, head of Army Futures Command, told reporters. “The ability to understand what has changed since you got an aircraft, and to communicate amongst aircraft, it’s an amazing change from the way we have always done things.”

In late March, Microsoft [MSFT] was awarded a deal worth up to $21.9 billion over the next 10 years to move the IVAS headset from rapid prototyping into production (Defense Daily, March 31). 

The critical data collected at EDGE21 will not only inform the Army’s plans for the upcoming PC ‘21 event this fall but also the direction the service will take for the new emerging capabilities demonstrated over the last two weeks, particularly ALE-Small and Large.

“We’ve matured [that technology] several steps here, but how do we begin to spin some of these capabilities out faster. It’s not about waiting until 2035,” Murray said.

The ALE-Small prototype, an ALTIUS-600 drone built by Anduril Industries that could be used to also carry weapons, was both air and ground-launched at EDGE21 and will be fired again at PC ‘21.

The ALE-Large is also a test article, built by L3Harris Technologies [LHX], and was borne out of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office with plans to transition into a program of record next year. The system, which was demonstrated for the first time at EDGE21, is capable of reaching speeds of up to 200 knots and could be deployed from Gray Eagles, FARA or FLRAA aircraft. 

“A lot of concepts work very well when they’re PowerPoint slides, and what you need to do is get them out in the dirt and out with soldiers,” Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, told reporters. “I saw the ALE-Large-type capabilities [here] and I see the speed of that and the range of that and the fact it’s going to converge. We took a capability and significantly improved what we thought we had.”