Army experiment highlights need for coders at the edge

After a big experiment using more than 30 different developing technologies at Yuma Proving Ground, the Army is certain it will need two things: more software workers and smaller tactical operating units.

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After a large scale experiment using more than 30 different developing technologies at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, the Army is certain it will need two things: more software workers and smaller, more mobile tactical operations centers.

"We don't know the exact number, but we have the investments and focus to start cranking them through," Ryan McCarthy, the Army secretary, told reporters Sept. 24, about the Army's need for more coders and data scientists. "We're going to need a lot more of them."

The Army spent six weeks in the desert at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona testing prototype technologies experimenting with machine-to-machine data transfers, artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, cloud at the edge and new tactical networking tools. The goal was to see if dozens of projects being developed in the labs could actually help complete mock missions in harsh conditions. The results were mixed, yielding some successes and many misfires, particularly when it came to the network and data links between it and various platforms.

But having scientists and software engineers on the ground to tweak the network, algorithms, alongside weapons platforms operators seemed to stick out the most for McCarthy.

"It was an experiment, an experiment at scale for a combined arms operation," he said, "having engineers and scientists take capabilities that are in development, not mature through harsh conditions, re-writing code in an expeditionary format is remarkable."

However, the addition of more software developers in uniform could extend to changes on the battlefield at tactical operations centers on the battalion or brigade level, which enables communications .

Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn, the deputy chief of staff, G-3/5/7 for the Army, said an improved data-sharing and information environment could lead to physically smaller command posts with fewer personnel. Today, those have large computer workstations complete with many wires, servers and screens showing data from respective air, integrated missile defense, ground and intelligence programs

"They're all boxes, workstations with a person behind it, and a bunch of wires behind that, and a bunch of data that's being stored," he said. To "get rid of all of those boxes except for one" and make each of those programs "an app inside that one box" could mean fewer operators would be needed, Flynn said.

Flynn and McCarthy wouldn't specify how many software workers would be needed. "It could be hundreds across the force because you'll need them at whatever echelon," the secretary said, adding that reducing the signature of brigade tactical operations could ultimately mean a change the personnel composition. "What will be interesting is the kinds of people that will be in the brigade TOC would be different than they are today. You'll probably have software coders today because if they needed to change the algorithm, they have to do it right there."

McCarthy said answering the question of how many is why the Army wants to start cultivating a larger a data and software-focused, uniformed, highly-skilled workforce now.

Army Futures Command named Austin Community College District as the home of its software factory aimed to develop student and military talent. The software factory is expected to open in January with its first 30-person cohort with a second tranche expecting to start next summer.

Gen. John Murray, AFC's commander, announced the two-year old modernization command's partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, which will host a master's degree program in the data sciences, National Defense magazine reported. The advanced degree program expands on the Army's artificial intelligence task force that stood up in 2019 to help synchronize the service's AI efforts.

But at the core of the Army's push for more software and data workers, as well as Project Convergence, is data and the network, which would need on-the-ground expertise to meet commanders' needs.

"Having the ops guys next to the coders at the edge and the scientists out there, now you're getting a conversation that's a lot closer between the needs of the operational commander or the operational leader," Flynn said, "whether they're in a command post or at a particular site, talking with the scientists, talking with the coders to figure out what is the best solution."

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