US Army wants coders at the tactical edge

WASHINGTON — A recent high-tech exercise at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, validated and demonstrated to the U.S. Army how important having coders in the force at the tactical edge will be going forward against near-peer adversaries.

“We have to have coders at the edge,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, who led the Project Convergence campaign of learning over a six week period from August into September, said during an Oct. 15 webcast at the Association of the U.S. Army’s virtual conference.

“One of the success stories of Project Convergence was whenever we identified a problem with the code, a problem with an algorithm, we had — we called them the Pep Boys — and the Pep Boys were there coding into the night to fix problems every day,” Coffman said.

These coders at Yuma sat in 120-degree heat, with nothing more than a laptop and fan, he said.

“They were able to solve problems in hours because the engineers, scientists and soldiers were all together working on the same problem,” Coffman said. “We have to have that going forward.”

Tech savvy soldiers will be critical on the future battlefield. “Now you hear ‘field-craft’ for soldiers out in the field, they really understand how to operate. You hear about trade-craft, a tanker on their tank, they really understand their tank,” Col. Rob Ryan, the deputy director in charge of Army network modernization, said during the same web event. “We’ve got to incorporate into the lexicon the tech-craft piece as we modernize this Army.”

But what does having coders on the battlefield look like?

“We have mechanics across the battlefield at echelon,” Coffman said. “Do we want a coder with the forward line of troops? Probably not. But not far back from that. We need to understand so that we don’t have the burden of this long misunderstood problem that we’re trying to solve.”

Whether that is at the battalion-, brigade- or division-level is “yet to be determined,” he said, adding, “at a minimum, division-level and below, should have coders there in uniform, not contractors, fixing the computer problems that we have, the computing problems that we have, the communication problems that we have, the aided target recognition problems that we have because the enemy will evolve, they will change and if we don’t have the rapid capability to correct or to counteract what the enemy’s trying to do to us, well, then they’re going to be able to make decisions faster than us and that is totally unacceptable.”

When dealing with a “living, breathing, thinking threat, we have to provide capability that can be able to adjust on the fly at that pace,” Brig. Gen. Rob Collins, the Army’s program executive officer for command, control, communications – tactical, said at the event.

But having coders out on the battlefield isn’t simple because networks have to be configured so they are secure and such a possibility will still require a hard look at tactics, techniques and procedures.

“There are things that we can do with open systems architecture,” which means the government needs to own the data, he said. “Often what folks get focused in on is the intellectual property and as long as we control the interfaces, we can provide things like a ‘Pep Boys toolkit’ so that soldiers out on the edge can have a developer’s kit,” he suggested.

Then as the threat, information and sensors change, “whatever the process may be, they can tailor that based on their mission without having to go all the way back to the factory of the industrial original equipment manufacturer to make that change,” Collins said.

Having such a capability is “well within the art of the possible,” he said, adding, “we have to think through the configuration management just to make sure that we continue to keep our systems cyber-hardened on the battlespace.”

The Army isn’t just demonstrating the need for these types of technical experts out at Project Convergence, but have been doing so around the world, Col. Stephanie Ahearn, Army Futures Command’s chief of concepts, said.

And so the Army has already been working hard within its new talent management effort to get the right type of people for these jobs. Some of those processes which AFC is leading such as standing up of the Army’s new software factory in Austin, Texas, and its partnership working on artificial intelligence with Carnegie Mellon are helping to develop experts that could enter the force, according to Ahearn.

Some have argued it’s hard to convince software engineers, coders or even hackers that their place is with the U.S. Army due to perceived culture clash, but for Coffman, it’s a fit.

“If you know coders, you’re not doing it for the money,” he said. “Most of them, they’re in it because they want to solve extremely hard problems and the United States Army, that’s what we deal with is extremely hard problems on the edge of the battlefield while people are shooting at us in 100-degree heat. These women and men that have this talent … we need to retain them and we retain them by giving them really tough things to solve.”

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