HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Designing the Army of 2040 requires a deep understanding of potential future threats and operational likelihoods as well as a keen appreciation for the rapidly evolving nature of technological change.
“It’s definitely going to be a transparent battlefield,” said Lt. Gen. D. Scott McKean, Deputy Commanding General of Army Futures Command and Director of the Futures and Concepts Center, referring to how advances in technology will fundamentally alter information collection, distribution and exploitation in theater.
On March 28, McKean joined other Army senior leaders and industry technology experts to discuss how the Army and Joint Force are advancing connective technologies — including the network, data collection and analysis tools, and human-machine teaming — to improve the agility, resiliency and lethality of the future force.
The conversation, part of a Contemporary Military Forum at the AUSA Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, additionally featured panel speakers Lt. Gen. Ross Coffman, deputy commanding general of Army Futures Command; Willie B. Nelson, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology; Alex Wang, founder and CEO of Scale AI; and Aaron Mebust, director of GPS source at General Dynamics Mission Systems.
The panelists underscored that strengthening deep sensing interoperability and data integration with joint and multinational partners will be crucial to future warfighting success.
“We have to be open and agile enough to take in data from all sources,” Nelson said. “We can’t just keep building proprietary or stovepiped solutions; they have to be able to be integrated together.”
“We have to design our systems so that only the relevant data at echelon is present,” Coffman added.
“It’s impossible for any human to process all the data that’s being collected right now,” Wang said, agreeing with fellow panelist sentiment that refining how the Army leverages critical data — rather than focusing on how to use all data collected — is key.
The speakers additionally stressed the importance of consistently experimenting with and beginning to field artificial intelligence (AI) tools that can help Soldiers carry out tasks more efficiently and safely, particularly in areas like logistics and sustainment.
“AI really is an assistive technology,” Wang said, highlighting how fully autonomous systems are not only difficult to build, but also do not possess the same capacity humans do to manage new situations or changing circumstances. “The human-machine teaming is really critical. How do you enable the humans to do really critical functions to enable the autonomous systems to be safe and reliable and accurate?”
“I think we’re going to see a flip in 2040, where humans are doing those functions that allow the machine to get into a position of relative advantage, not the machine getting humans into a position of relative advantage,” Coffman said, describing the partnership he envisions as being similar to the one a handler has with a working dog.
Nelson emphasized the need to start incorporating AI and harnessing digital twin technology more proactively to truly understand how new systems can support Soldier activities.
“We don’t necessarily have to go for the hardest use case to validate that autonomy or AI has a place on the battlefield,” Nelson said. “I think logistics is ripe for autonomous operations, both aviation-related and on the ground.”
The panelists acknowledged that achieving gains in the AI realm and other nascent fields will require considerable coordination and clear policy.
“The only way to make that happen — to see this vision of 2040 — is very close collaboration with industry,” Mebust said.
Making quick progress in AI and interoperability is also a priority.
“When our adversaries initiate contact, we can’t be sitting here having a COMMEX to try to connect things,” McKean said. “We have to be ready to fight.”
Even with the incorporation of transformational technologies, Army leaders reiterated that the exceptional abilities of people will continue to be what drives the success of the United States Army, whether it faces challenges from adversaries tomorrow or 20 years from now.
“We need to make sure that our future leaders are grounded in all the skills that we have now,” Coffman said, underscoring how capabilities like expert decision-making will always be pivotal, including in situations where technology is jeopardized in some way.
Regardless of the adversary being faced or the equipment available, “we have the advantage of our Soldiers and our leaders,” Coffman said.