I/ITSEC NEWS: Army Making Big Push to Train, Retain Coders

By Jon Harper

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The Army is rolling out initiatives to recruit, train and retain a cadre of highly skilled coders to ensure soldiers can prevail on the highly digitized battlefields of the future.

The operating environment in coming decades will be characterized by “hyperactivity,” said Gen. John “Mike” Murray, commanding general of Army Futures Command, which is spearheading the service’s top modernization priorities including: long-range fires; next-generation combat vehicles; future vertical lift; the network; air-and-missile defense; and soldier lethality.

“Everything's going to happen just at incredible speeds, so that kind of shapes some of the things that we're working on,” Murray said Nov. 30 on the opening day of the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference. The event — the largest modeling and simulation symposium in the world — is being held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I/ITSEC is hosted by the National Training and Simulation Association, an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Futures Command envisions a “three-plus-two” construct in which autonomy, robotics and artificial intelligence change the character of warfare with the help of the data architectures and standards, Murray noted.

“If you're going to have autonomy, robotics and artificial intelligence effective on a battlefield, you're going to have to have the backbone; in other words, a resilient, redundant, secure network,” Murray said. “I'm going to have to have the correct data architectures and data standards in place to enable those three.”

The service has gleaned critical lessons learned from the Project Convergence exercise that it recently conducted at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, where it experimented with linking sensors, shooters and command-and-control nodes with the help of AI. The effort included passing data between unmanned platforms.

“I learned … we're going to have to have the ability to code at the edge,” Murray said. “The technicians and scientists were writing and rewriting code multiple times a day the entire six weeks we were out there. And so we're going to have to have the ability to do that in the future. … If you're going to keep up with a rapidly adjusting and thinking enemy, the ability to code and recode at the edge and do data at the edge is just incredibly important.”

To do coding and recoding at the tactical edge the Army needs to recruit, train and retain a talented workforce, he noted. The service is pursuing three pilot programs to get after that challenge.

One is a two-year master's degree program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where Army soldiers and civilians are trained in data sciences and data engineering. A second pilot effort at Carnegie Mellon is a one-year program for artificial intelligence technicians. The two-year program focuses on teaching soldiers how to build digital environments, and the one-year program trains them to maintain the environment, Murray explained.

A third pilot initiative, known as the Software Factory, is being set up in Austin, Texas — a commercial tech hub where Futures Command is headquartered. The year-long training program, which is set to kick off in January, will involve industry and train soldiers to operate in the digital environment, Murray said.

“I was pleasantly shocked at the amount of interest we have in this in the Army,” he said.

More than 300 fully qualified personnel applied for the 25 open slots for the first cohort. For the second cohort, which starts in June 2021, more than 20,000 soldiers expressed interest, he noted. There was interest throughout the ranks, ranging from privates first-class to lieutenant colonels, and across the different branches of the service.

“I'm convinced that we have the talent and once we get these pilots going, I think our next biggest hurdle is really a couple of things. One is how do we expand this to account for the need that’s out there? And two is … how we retain that talent?” Murray said.

“And so we're starting off with a service obligation. We're starting off with an additional skill identifier or potentially a new branch in the Army,” he added. “We're going to have to focus on how do we not train these folks up and then lose them to industry as soon as we have them trained. And that's really the focus for the next six months or so for AFC.”

As it beefs up its capability to do coding and recoding at the tactical edge, the Army wants help from industry.

“Proprietary IP solutions are not going to work in the future,” Murray said. Open system architectures are needed so that the Army can more easily modify code when needed.

Proprietary information can pose challenges for the military. However, “that's how industry makes money,” Murray acknowledged. “Maybe there's a halfway point that we can get to and think about this differently,” he said.

Topics: Training and Simulation

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