From Unmanned Systems Magazine: Third Offset: How can the military take advantage of industry work on plug-and-play systems?

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In a perfect world, the U.S. military would have a fleet of plug-and-play unmanned ground vehicles that would be simpler to operate and support than the current fleet of thousands of small and medium-size UGVs, which has a variety of logistics trains and electronic architectures. The current fleet works well, but it was fielded quickly without a long-term plan to meet urgent needs, like countering roadside bombs.

In theory, rationalization would allow the services to bring more effective vehicles to the field more quickly, upgrade them more easily, and support them more efficiently. And, the theory goes, it would allow the fleet to be a more effective component of the Third Offset doctrine, which would see the military take constant and rapid advantage of expertise in American private industry in areas like autonomy and artificial intelligence, edging out potential competitors whose technologies presumably would always lag behind.

The doctrine has its doubters, who say that global competition in the high-tech arena is stiff and that there's no guarantee the U.S. could stay ahead for any length of time to blunt a potential enemy's aggressive intentions. That was true of the First Offset (nuclear weapons) and the Second Offset (stealth and precision). But U.S. preoccupation with fighting terrorism is said to have led to a prolonged reliance on the Second Offset, allowing potential adversaries to begin to match American expertise in stealth and precision, and to move on to more sophisticated technologies.

Third Offset considerations aside, observers say the unmanned ground vehicle fleet should be rationalized anyway and that the path, in fact, does lie through private industry. The question, is how can the military can take advantage of the work industry is doing in things like supply chains, robotics, artificial intelligence, human-machine interface and virtual reality?

Planning hurdles

One issue is that the military is hampered by a hide-bound planning, budgeting and execution cycle that can take years to put products in the field and that lags far behind industry's first-to-market approach.

The answer, at least from the Marine Corps perspective, may involve accepting some of the logistics and architecture drawbacks of the current UGV fleet in order to get the latest and most capable systems, says Col. Jim Jenkins of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico, Virginia.

The way it's done now, he says in a telephone interview, it takes a long time to buy everybody in the Marine Corps the same thing, so by the time the second half of a buy is fielded it's already obsolete. Complicating the problem is that private industry in the meantime may have moved ahead in things like the processing power and memory speed of the original buy, making it difficult to get replacement parts, and boosting cost.

But it may be possible "to find a balance and comfort level" by staying with the current mixture of UGVs and at the same time taking advantage of fast-moving technological progress to get to the goal of plug-and-play components and slicker logistics. A way to do this might be through standardized controls. This way, Jenkins says, current and future UGVs would interface easily with humans, each other, and larger command and control systems.

Military efforts to arrive at standardized controls may not be getting a lot of attention, but "we're slowly getting our arms around" the idea "that the standard is the most powerful thing you can own in this kind of discussion," Jenkins says. It's clear to the Marine Corps, for instance, that enabling any UGV to tap into a single command and control system may be more important than buying this or that vehicle.

The Corps' Program Executive Office for Land Systems says that because open plug-and-play architecture allows vehicles to add new components and seamlessly integrate them without changing configurations, the Marines are continuing to develop "a standardized approach to command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence [C4I] and electronic warfare [EW] integration."

Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft can help the military standardize through organizations like the National Advanced Mobility Consortium, or NAMC, which is made up of about 280 companies and defense partners and charged with developing "interoperability profiles."

NAMC’s work is “absolutely critical to the future of what we’re doing for robotics,” says Bryan McVeigh, project manager, Force Projection, Army Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support.

But there are obstacles, says Jenkins. For one thing, the security requirements of the Marine Corps, for example, "are a little different from what the commercial market's willing to accept," such as making systems rugged and cyber-safe. Still, "We understand that [standards are] kind of the keystone of the whole thing."

And the services are cooperating with each other and DARPA on standards and other areas.

"Marine Corps-wise, we're probably most aligned with the Army on the robotic systems side, but there's a lot of overlap with what the Navy's doing on the air systems and maybe even frankly on the surface and under-surface systems as well," Jenkins says.

At the same time, the Marine Corps is challenged by the fact that it traditionally fights at sea, in the air, and on land, so it can be tough "finding the balance between buying our own capability in those domains and leveraging what one of the other services is already doing."

Marine and Army planners have written a white paper, "The Multi-Domain Battle: Combined Arms for the 21st Century," that outlines an approach to fighting a sophisticated enemy in the 2025-2040 period. It has a Third Offset orientation, saying, "A decade and a half of counterinsurgency campaigns eroded the ability of the U.S. military to confront emerging peer threats who developed effective countermeasures to [U.S.] Joint Force advantages. … As a result, the Joint Force can no longer assume continuous superiority in any domain."

The National Defense University says peer competitors may surpass the U.S. industry in autonomy and robotics, warning that, "The current glide path will not maintain that preeminence." To help solve the problem, it says, the government must "facilitate the industry by removing non-value-added bureaucracy and outdated legal structures and encourage the industrial base by removing barriers to entry. …"

Pentagon officials know the problem.

"We've been challenging ourselves to be able to move faster, especially at that cutting edge of new technology," Stephen P. Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and development, has told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We’ve been looking for ways to be able to engage new partners in timelines that might be measured in weeks, rather than months and often a year, to contract."

The idea is "to think about new ways to bring technology into platforms and systems, leveraging modular architecture approaches or persistent architecture approaches, for example, be able to plug-and-play technologies into our existing systems to speed the upgrade cycle."

Glimpse of the future?

It's not clear precisely what a fleet of rationalized and standardized UGVs would look like, but part of the answer may emerge from an experiment being planned for March 2018 at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California.

Taking advantage of work private industry has done with supply chain management and autonomous vehicles, the Marines during Integrated Training Exercise 3-18 will evaluate a logistics command and control system "that tells me where my stuff is and tells me where my users are in terms of levels of fuel, ordnance, parts, and how do I synch that up so [a] part starts moving before the vehicle breaks, and along the way I know it," Jenkins says. 

Then it will be possible to "use potentially anything from multi-ton-payload unmanned air vehicles, to multi-10-pound-payload unmanned air vehicles or ground vehicles that [will do] that kind of tailored distribution right to the point of need at the time of need."

The idea, he says, is to get away from an "iron mountain" of supplies that is simply dropped, making a big target and also making it tough to get things quickly to individual Marines just when they need them, lightening the loads they have to carry.

Unmanned vehicles to be used in the March exercise "include current USMC vehicles with remote operation kits and air vehicles with payloads from 40-200 lbs.," Jenkins writes in an email.

He acknowledges in the interview that high-tech, computer-driven systems have inherent vulnerabilities that older, simpler systems don’t. But, “we’re trying to address those vulnerabilities as much as we can from both a hardware and a software perspective” so systems can function in environments where GPS is denied and where the electromagnetic spectrum is being jammed. Still, relying on high-tech systems is “certainly not without risk.”

Jenkins also says plug-and-play is linked to the idea of a Third Offset “in the sense that we do want to take advantage of the work that’s being done” by industry, and the artificial intelligence piece “is probably the most right for a true Third Offset.” But if all technology is commercially available, “is it really going to be that much of an advantage” when compared to the First and Second Offsets, which were very closely held technologies?

Proliferation of technology today “really is an equalizer” among potential adversaries to some degree, so it may be that “the training of the individual Marine and the ethical and decision-making competence of the individual Marine are what provide your offset long-term,” he says.

A U.S. Marine tests an unmanned ground robot. Photo: USMC