At Edge 23, the US Army and international partners break down data-sharing barriers
WASHINGTON — The arid sands of Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., this month played host to the US Army aviation’s latest effort to break through data sharing roadblocks that hinder operations with allies on a joint, connected battlefield. This time, Aviation Cross Functional Team chief Maj. Gen. Wally Rugen said “we feel like we solved” the problem.
From May 1 to 18, the service hosted its third iteration of the Experimental Demonstration Gateway Exercise, or EDGE 23, to examine ways of better operating in the vast distances of the Indo-Pacific region. The large-scale aviation event is designed, in part, to focus on the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) to the lower tier of the air domain, and seeking ways to extend the reach of the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA).
This year the Army was aiming to break through previous data sharing problems — especially how to communicate and exchange data with allies on different levels of classification. Part of that meant using a new, secret enclave to connect participating countries at a classified level to do any number of tasks, including calling in fire support.
“In our mission partner environment, we saw the coalition operate in a classified environment on the secret, and sensitive but unclassified enclaves,” Rugen told reporters during a virtual media roundtable on Thursday. He noted that there was a secret realm for the 11 partner nations at the event, along with one for only the US.
Maj. Donald Irwin, who is with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, ran the joint operational center during the exercise and said although data sharing started off “slow,” as the exercise progressed, the “growth was exponential.”
Out of the hundreds of calls to fire during the event, Irwin said roughly half were “fully digital.”
“We were receiving digital calls for fire direct to our brigade [Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System] AFATDS from not only US government assets, but we had the Netherlands able to send call to fire directly, digital to ours [and] we received one from the Italians,” he told reporters.
“We were able to solve that messaging format issue, which was really what it came down to…,” Irwin added. “And, once we did, it was very rapid growth in just the last week of experimentation. Every day, the majority of the calls for fire were digital, and there were very few analog.”
US Army aviation leaders did not detail all of the weapons and technology tested during EDGE 23, but there was a FARA simulator, “launched effects” prototypes, 25 different unmanned aerial systems, one of Netherlands’s 5th generation fighter aircraft (presumably one of the nation’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters), a Canadian Bell 412 helicopter outfitted with a developmental autonomous capability, and more.
The international contingent at this year’s event included Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom as “participant countries,” and other unnamed nations listed as were observers. Military leaders from those countries were also interested in gleaning feedback on data sharing.
Vice Chief of the German army, Lt. Gen. Andreas Marlow, for example, said his primary goal was feeding data between aviation assets and his nation’s various battle management systems, and then feeding some of that information to external partners. Ultimately, he assessed that the German army had achieved 95 percent of its goal.
“That was, as a bottom line, very successful. Successful in a way that there were some challenges during the weeks, but these challenges were more or less the purpose of why we did this,” Marlow said.
Looking ahead to next year’s EDGE 24, Rugen said he is eyeing ways to “quickly scale,” and said the US Army needs to find virtual and constructive ways to replicate “this notion of a battlefield, in theater.”
“We saw some great… workups, with the FARA simulator where we could do this notion of live and virtual and constructive, and get calls for fire digitally out of our constructive enclaves and into the exercise to get the reps and sets we needed,” Rugen added. “I would want to scale [that].”
From the German army’s vantage point, Marlow said that while technical interoperability is critical for coalitions operating jointly on a battlefield, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted that partner nations must also work on other critical areas like common logistics and the ammunition exchangeability.
“We have a lot to do in the future,” Marlow said. “It’s good to work on this one, which is extremely important, because data is… one of the main weapons systems in the future. But I put down 100 other issues that we have collectively to work on as the free world, as NATO and as partners in order to make sure that if we have to go into war that we have everything working smoothly together as is really necessary.”