TRAC-Monterey leverages state-of-the-art data science to inform future force planning

By Maureena Thompson, Army Futures CommandJuly 1, 2022

The Lone Cypress, located in Monterey County, California.
The Lone Cypress, located in Monterey County, California, is frequently described as representing persistence and resilience, both qualities valued and embodied by the U.S. Army and its Soldiers. (Photo Credit: Graphic by Shelby Burns, Army Futures Command; photo by mblach, Envato Elements) VIEW ORIGINAL

AUSTIN, Texas – The mission of The Research and Analysis Center (TRAC) at U.S. Army Futures Command could be described as an analytical thinker’s dream: to produce relevant, objective and credible operations analysis to inform decisions.

Using advanced technological systems and innovative methodologies, the expert researchers at TRAC conduct studies and develop scenarios that directly inform future force planning and influence our nation’s National Defense Strategy.

The center – officially designated as a federal laboratory by the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer – also executes complex models and simulations and applies new analytic methods to shape Army concepts and requirements.

TRAC has teams located around the country, including at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Fort Lee, Virginia; and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

However, one of its most unique outposts is also its smallest, at least in terms of staff footprint.

Supported by only eight employees, TRAC-Monterey is a data science research and innovation office embedded on the campus of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California.

As one of the U.S. military’s most prestigious graduate schools, NPS offers a rich environment for learning and applying innovations from the most dynamic fields of study, including in computer science, artificial intelligence and systems engineering.

Recognizing this, the team at TRAC-Monterey has been able to harness the enthusiasm, creative thinking and on-the-ground experience of NPS graduate students – many of them accomplished military officers hailing from the Navy, the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Space Force, in addition to Allied partner militaries – to dive into some of the Army and Department of Defense’s toughest planning challenges.

“Having a dedicated unit within academia has been really beneficial,” said TRAC-Monterey Director Lt. Col. Brian Wade, who noted that NPS students play an active role in developing the methods, models and tools employed by the office.

“We are able to expand and contract our capacity through students,” Wade said, adding that TRAC-Monterey staff members are “currently advising 30-40 students right now,” with the assistance of NPS faculty.

Wade, who holds a PhD in aerospace engineering, brings to his position firsthand understanding of how to artfully apply data science methods to robust engineering simulations and analyses.

He explained that TRAC serves as an “unbiased broker” in helping the Army make important and sometimes difficult decisions about modernization programs, emerging concepts and technologies, and future organizations, all while considering the impact to the force and budget.

“We say what the data says,” he said.

As an organization dedicated to applied research, TRAC-Monterey is also able to assess what new methods of analysis are being developed in academia or used in the private sector and explore whether the Army can “rub some dirt on it and develop it.”

“The Army is continuously changing, and the methods that we use are continuously changing,” Wade said. This kinetic state means methods of analysis have continued to mature alongside new equipment, formations and strategy – all of which come under the microscope at TRAC-Monterey.

The office’s passion for high-quality, leading-edge research and analysis is evident in the reports produced by its staff and students, as well as in the feedback of students who have participated in TRAC-Monterey projects, training and mentorship.

“Working with TRAC enriched my academic understanding of operational analysis by challenging me to think creatively with respect to selecting and executing thesis work,” said Maj. Kurt Reynolds, who engaged with TRAC-Monterey through the NPS Modeling Virtual Environments and Simulation (MOVES) Institute.

“Modeling real-world phenomena with multiple variables is an arduous task, but the professionals at TRAC helped to narrow down what portions of the process were important to model and provided enough data to help shape the experimental design. The various analytical methods and tools also provided a great deal of insight to help me gain a deeper understanding of the solutions generated through experimentation,” Reynolds said.

Another former MOVES student who worked with TRAC-Monterey, Capt. Justin Frank, appreciated the future implications of the work performed.

“It is extremely important to provide service members with cutting-edge training platforms that incorporate near-peer threat data and models,” Frank said.

“Simulation and training platforms will provide our service members with the edge and experience which may win the future fight.”

The TRAC-Monterey team works closely with other future force planning entities, including the Army’s Futures and Concepts Center, Maneuver Center of Excellence and Armaments Center, to test out and validate concepts for future warfighting, which often reflect the fluidity of evolving threats and technologies.

TRAC-Monterey staff and students frequently conduct analysis using data science and machine learning methods to evaluate force effectiveness and operational benefit in computer-enabled simulations, wargaming and large datasets. The analysis helps inform decisions about new concepts, organizations and materiel solutions in the context of the Joint and opposition force.

“What is the operational effectiveness? What is the operational benefit? That’s really where I think TRAC shines,” Wade said.