The U.S. Army wants to develop and field the Microsoft [MSFT] Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) in stages, as the service works to fix problems in the first “alpha” version–development akin to the development of satellite phones in the 1980s, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said on Feb. 8.

“IVAS is alive and well despite the fact that there have been some delays in our schedule,” Wormuth told a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) virtual forum.

“Microsoft has worked extremely well and very closely with us,” she said. “I had the opportunity a few months ago to try out IVAS for myself, and really the challenge we’re facing right now is in the visualization of the headset and the resolution quality of the imaging. That’s really what the delay is about, but Microsoft has been working very closely with us and, I think, is very committed to seeing if we can work through these problems. I’m eager to see the results of the next test that comes out, but I think the kind of experience we’ve had with IVAS–both with an excellent private sector partner, with the kind of soldier touch points we’ve had and getting a lot of feedback from soldiers as we go in this iterative process–has worked well for us.”

The Pentagon’s Director of Operational, Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) recently said that the Army must still address challenges with IVAS to ensure its “operational effectiveness, suitability and survivability in combat” before initial fielding this year (Defense Daily, Jan. 28). Last October, the Army decided to delay IVAS’ operational evaluation until this May and to move back the first unit equipped until September.

Karen Saunders, the Army’s acting top acquisition official, and Gen. Mike Murray, the head of Army Futures Command, said that IVAS has had an issue with the system’s waveguide technology that was causing resolution issues.

DOT&E advised the Army to continue mitigating IVAS deficiencies, work with Microsoft on developing a reliability growth plan to continue to correct failure modes and complete a battery and power management plan “to determine how soldiers will charge batteries to ensure adequate power to complete a 72-hour mission scenario.”

Last March, the Army awarded Microsoft a deal worth up to $21.9 billion over the next 10 years to move the IVAS program from rapid prototyping into production (Defense Daily, March 31, 2021).

During the Feb. 8 CNAS virtual forum, Wormuth also suggested that the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) will move forward in the Biden administration’s upcoming fiscal 2023 budget request and that the aircraft will be manned. A Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) pre-budget analysis event on Feb. 7 had suggested that the Pentagon may cancel FARA.

Sikorsky’s [LMT] Raider X is competing against Bell’s [TXT] 360 Invictus for FARA. Flight tests are to occur in the first quarter of fiscal 2023 before the Army picks one platform for production that year.

“We were just in some briefings yesterday on FARA,” Wormuth said on Feb. 8. “My sense is that we’re not at a point from a technology standpoint where fully unmanned is…We’re not quite ready to go there, frankly, in terms of the feasibility of it. Now an important part of the FARA ecosystem is air launched effects–unmanned small platforms–that are a really important part of the FARA program. The helicopter itself is envisioned to be manned. We are some distance away from being able to go to fully unmanned. Perhaps, that’s something further out in the future that we could look at. I am certainly very mindful of the Air Force’s experience with Predator. There was a lot of resistance in the early days from the fighter pilot community to the idea of Predator, and we know now that has been a huge success story. My mind is open, but I think you have to look at what the technology can support at this point in time.”

Potential conflicts with high technology adversaries, China and Russia, also will put a premium on the development and fielding of highly capable artificial intelligence (AI) systems to sift through data and provide military operators with timely, relevant information, Wormuth suggested.

“When we think about the contested environment that we know we would be facing in the Pacific or Europe, all of the information that would be coming into the platform, given where we are with AI, I think you still need that human in the loop to be able to absorb and process the amount of information in the short amount of time that you would have,” she said.