Meet the New Military-Industrial Complex

Meet the New Military-Industrial Complex

April 22, 2024

How the Pentagon–Silicon Valley alliance is harnessing AI to defeat China in World War III.

A battlefield visualization system. (Michael Klare)
As I peered down inside a briefing tent at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, California, on March 5, a giant floor screen projected the back-and-forth maneuvers of “red” (aggressor) and “blue” (defending) forces across the western Pacific. Over and over again, air and sea assets of the red force—identified as a “near-peer adversary” of the United States (a common stand-in for China)—penetrated deep into “blue” territory occupied by Washington’s allies, only to be repulsed or destroyed by blue’s own combat forces. In a scenario that can only be described as a modernized version of World War II in the Pacific, blue forces augmented their air and naval strikes with amphibious assaults to drive red invaders from islands they had seized at the onset of the exercise.

As I watched these computer-generated engagements, actual US and allied units—performing the roles of both red and blue forces—conducted air, sea, and ground maneuvers in an area stretching from Hawaii to Texas. To a considerable extent, these mock battles entailed the sort of encounters one would expect in any significant great-power contest, with ships, planes, and tanks firing rockets and missiles at each other. But this exercise, I learned, was distinct from most US training operations in that the principal aim of the exercise—known as Project Convergence Capstone 4, or PCC4—was not to test conventional firepower but rather the use of artificial intelligence (AI), automated data distribution, and other advanced technologies in weaving together disparate fighting units, whether US or allied, and ensure their success in battle.

“Future Joint [i.e., multiservice] and multinational warfighters [will] need integrated capabilities that operate at machine speed to win on the hyperactive battlefields of the future,” the Army indicated when announcing PCC4. “Capstone 4 is the pinnacle event for persistent experimentation in a campaign of learning to develop those essential capabilities.”

Project Convergence has been conducted every year or so by the Army’s Futures Command, a unit established in 2018 to design the weapons and tactics of next-generation forces. The first such event, Project Convergence 2020 (PC20), was held at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, and involved 500 Army personnel. Each subsequent iteration has grown in complexity, becoming a joint-service affair in 2021 (Project Convergence 2021, or PC21) and a multinational event in 2022 (PC22). (No exercise was held in 2023.)

This year’s version was the most elaborate and complex yet, with 4,000 participants drawn from all five US military services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Space Command) as well as the militaries of Australia, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. PCC4 took place in two phases, stretching over a four-week period. Phase I, centered at Camp Pendleton, held from February 23 to March 3, was focused on a “maritime scenario in the Indo-Pacific,” and largely involved air and naval encounters. Phase II, conducted at the Army’s National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California, was held from March 11 to 20 and emphasized land combat maneuvers, including the extensive use of unmanned weapons systems. Much of this was off-limits to the public, but I was one of about 20 members of the press invited to Camp Pendleton on March 5 for a series of briefings and weapons demonstrations.

“This year, we have increased the threat envelope to ten times what we did [in PC22],” Lt. Gen. Ross Coffman, deputy commander of the Army Futures Command told our media contingent on March 5, following Phase I. Noting that two multi-domain task forces were brought in to assist with communications and data-sharing, he claimed that “we’re able to effectively move data for the first time in an Indo-Pacific scenario at a magnitude never seen before.”

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Speaking at Camp Pendleton’s Pacific Views Event Center, Coffman went on to explain that a data-sharing network established by PCC4 served as an electronic “bridge,” allowing the instantaneous sharing of combat information between every element of the joint force. “This bridge absolutely allowed us to pass information from multiple sensors to multiple shooters so that an Army sensor passed data to a shooter in every service and every service sensor passed the same to every other service,” he declared.

Being able to share information quickly between disparate combat units spread across the wide expanse of the Pacific was said to be essential to ensure a US or allied victory in any future conflict with China (or, as it was put, a “near-peer adversary”). Because our presumed enemy has such a vast inventory of ships, planes, and missiles, I was told, the US-led coalition must be able to pinpoint those forces quickly and disable them before they can inflict serious damage, using whichever “shooters” were best positioned to do so. A failure to act quickly, it was argued, could result in substantial US or allied losses and a long war of attrition with no sure winner.

CJADC2 and “Replicator”
The PCC4 network was used not only to transmit targeting data and attack orders during Phase I of Project Convergence but also as a model for the Pentagon’s Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control (CJADC2) system—an elaborate network of sensors, data links, and automated battle-management systems linking all US military units. “CJADC2 is a war-fighting necessity to keep pace with the volume and complexity of data in modern warfare and to defeat adversaries decisively,” explained Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon on March 5. “CJADC2 enables the Joint Force to ‘sense,’ ‘make sense,’ and ‘act’ on information across the battlespace quickly using automation, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and machine learning to deliver informed solutions via a resilient and robust network environment.”

Until now, relatively little detailed information about CJADC2—its costs, components, and contractors—has been made available to the public. In a rare public discussion of the project, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told representatives of US defense contractors last August, “It’s a whole set of concepts, technologies, policies, and talent that’s advancing a core U.S. warfighting function: command and control.” With CJADC2, she continued, “we’re integrating sensors and fusing data across every domain, while leveraging cutting-edge decision support tools to enable high-tempo operations.”

The importance accorded CJADC2 by top Pentagon officials was underscored by Hick’s visit to Camp Pendleton on March 4 to observe Project Convergence and its test of CJADC2 technologies. According to a Pentagon “readout” on her visit, Hicks conferred with senior officers about the status of efforts to integrate the historically incompatible communications networks of the respective armed services into a shared, multiservice web—a mammoth task said to be posing numerous “challenges.”

While at Camp Pendleton, Hicks also sought to learn more about the military’s progress in integrating autonomous weapons systems—combat devices largely guided by AI, rather than human operators—into its combat lineup. The development and deployment of such systems is essential, she declared in her August 2023 address to members of the National Defense Industrial Association, if US forces are to prevail in any future conflict with China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Given the PLA’s advantage in conventional measures of power (“more ships, more missiles, more people,” as she put it), the US military must flood the future battlespace with multitudes of “all-domain attritable autonomous” weapons—low-cost,  » …
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