The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works in water and on land to lay the groundwork for multi-domain operations in 2028.
By Nicholas Boone
This is the first in a series of articles about the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) support for multi-domain operations. “The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028” concept proposes a series of solutions for the rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare—land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. ERDC and engineer capabilities span the multi-domain operations cycle from competing short of armed conflict, to solving a layered standoff, to returning to competition on more favorable terms. This article contains examples of modernized software currently being used to refine war plans, conduct mission rehearsal and disseminate cross-domain intelligence for multi-domain operations success.
Even before our nation’s formation, the first Continental Congress organized an Army and appointed a chief engineer to assist Gen. George Washington in solving the revolutionary challenges of the time. After partnering with allied nations and delivering success with this inaugural mission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) broadened its national service and embraced diverse responsibilities, such as managing the nation’s first military academy and engineering institution, developing our country’s defenses, mapping the western frontier, managing federal flood control, providing hydroelectric power and leading natural disaster response missions.
Based on these successes, our nation’s military leaders once again turned to USACE three-quarters of a century ago as they began to consider one of the boldest multi-domain assaults in modern warfare. In planning the D-Day invasions at Normandy, the scale of which was unprecedented, national leaders leaned heavily upon the engineering expertise tucked away at the Corps’ Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Mississippi—the location of today’s U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC).
Our engineers advised military leaders on the challenges they could encounter with coastal logistics and built models of Mulberry harbors—the temporary portable harbors developed by the United Kingdom during World War II to facilitate the rapid offloading of cargo onto beaches—to understand their response during extreme seas. Those tests confirmed, if not improved, British designs that aided in calming coastal waters during the invasion. Researchers conducted scaled testing of float bridges and advised the military on which designs provided greater operational capability in extreme river-crossing conditions, a role that continues today. These engineers and scientists also leveraged their geotechnical expertise and forged the beginnings of airfield engineering for military operations, developing design criteria and material solutions to support heavy wheel loads required by new military aircraft—a tri-service responsibility still executed in Vicksburg. Similar examples of support can be found in all subsequent armed conflicts.
Today, ERDC stands ready to address the next challenge. The nature of evolving threats prompted Army leaders to overhaul the Army’s operating concept and modernize capabilities to counter and defeat near-peer adversaries. As the Army transforms to deliver a force capable of executing multi-domain operations by 2028 and ready to do so by 2035, ERDC is actively engaged by providing the engineers, joint force and allied partners with innovative technology tailored for this new extreme operational pace.
The enemy’s anti-access layered defenses seek to deny our ability to project combat power, enter and set the theater, and transition to conflict on our own terms. Defeating these defenses will require rapid and continuous integration of all warfare domains—land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. Armed conflict phases will struggle to commence if we fail to synchronize theater arrival. These critical logistical and engineering details were historically assumed away during tabletop exercises, but they cannot continue to be overlooked. ERDC anticipated this shift and began re-posturing its science and technology portfolio away from counterinsurgency problems and toward entry operations and near-peer threats during the “pivot to the Pacific” in 2012. Since this pivot, ERDC has been delivering new technologies to survive near-peer strikes and synchronize time-critical engineering tasks that must be executed with extreme precision, so that follow-on forces can flow through contested air and sea ports.
All aspects of multi-domain operations require engineering solutions to succeed. A calibrated force posture combines position and the ability to maneuver across strategic distances. This, in turn, requires modernized power-projection techniques and global access engineering methods to synchronize force arrival during brief windows of exploitation. Specialized equipment requirements often demand unique combat and expeditionary engineering considerations, and if not calibrated properly with adequate maneuver support capabilities, will impede the ability to reinforce the theater.
In addition, the maneuver support elements that enable multi-domain formations to identify and neutralize natural and manmade obstacles must be improved. Being able to converge these capabilities requires synchronized mission command and standardized geospatial data updated systematically as the conflict unfolds.
The Army must modernize how we mobilize, project, protect, sustain and train our forces, and ERDC is involved with each function at all echelons across the Army, joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational communities.
“Of all [the] organizations I deal with in seeking to mitigate capability gaps and modernize the engineer regiment for the demands of multi-domain operations, ERDC is ever present—engaged, aware and proactively finding solutions to tough problems,” said Col. Marc Hoffmeister, assistant commandant of the U.S. Army Engineer School.
“This has been a consistent reality for me in multiple senior leadership positions,” he said “I’m confident that my personal experience is indicative of ERDC’s responsive and innovative support across the Army. They are truly one of, if not the, Army’s most valuable player in the future force modernization enterprise.”
OPERATIONS PLAN REFINEMENT
Back in 1944, Allied leaders closely watched weather patterns, ultimately deciding to delay the invasion of Normandy by a day because of forecasted storms. Weather forecasting remains critical today. The difference is that leaders now have access to much more sophisticated predictive tools. Specialized intelligence becomes even more important as enemy anti-access and area denial methods limit port choices and require joint forces to deploy through austere points of entry.
ERDC has developed tools and data analytical capabilities that can tell leaders which ports and beaches are accessible and can provide assurances about whether operating conditions will affect meticulously developed strategies.
ERDC’s Rapid Operational Access and Maneuver Support (ROAMS) tool determines if vessels can maneuver in coastal, littoral and riverine zones to access beaches and ports, highlighting debarkation sites and which of the Army’s lighterage craft—used to transport equipment, cargo and personnel between ships and from ship to shore—are best suited for mission conditions. Using forecasts of environmental conditions, including water depth, currents and tides, ROAMS calculates navigable routes through the littoral zone and provides those paths over the network to vessel operators and command groups as needed. During ongoing assaults, ROAMS embedded with multi-domain formations would enable faster command decisions. Leaders planning operations can seamlessly transfer ROAMS route data to virtual ship simulators for a more high-fidelity analysis that can help them to refine plans.
After selecting a place to land, planners can get the most comprehensive insight into port characteristics by using ERDC’s Port Operations Rating Tool (PORT), a cloud-computing, web-based tool that serves as an in-depth repository of all information for approximately 6,000 ports worldwide. PORT gives the transportation planner the most up-to-date and comprehensive intelligence on sea ports, such as the number of available berths and cranes, cargo capacity and navigation channel depths. This tells military planners what vessels they can bring into a port and gives them the ability to data-mine and analyze port characteristics and their limitations for military use, and receive initial “throughput” estimates for extreme cargo such as the main battle tanks that have never touched some commercial coastal facilities.
In addition to the commonly known major terminals and world ports, PORT is the sole catalog of medium, small, extra-small and fully austere (beach) sites. Planners can rapidly establish an alternate course of action or location when access to a large, primary port is denied. By using overhead imagery and other intelligence data to remotely engineer unavailable maritime critical characteristics, PORT creates models for compact forces to gain footholds in obscure, austere points of entry. It also simulates features like spacing requirements, cargo capacity and ship lanes that are more difficult to plan during austere beach landings. When a port has been heavily damaged, the tool’s modeling capability helps engineers sequence repairs and determine the fastest way to bring it back to full capacity.
Not only is ERDC improving the Army’s technical intelligence, it uses this intelligence to simulate vessel landings in severe environments and model inland ground vehicle mobility. By seamlessly combining these single-domain tools, planners can virtually replicate the projection of forces from sea to inland objective. They can rehearse how well the natural ship channel will accommodate a military vessel, determine transit times and chart traffic patterns.
“[ERDC] gives the warfighter and the sustainer some analytical tools to get after some of the challenges we have in the future fight,” said U.S. Army Transportation Corps Regimental Chief Warrant Officer Jermain Williamson. “It definitely gives the warfighter some tools to make some decisions based on risk. Technology enhances your ability to make good decisions based on the information.”
ERDC has used ship simulator and vessel-response models since the early 1980s to evaluate federally maintained navigation channels in the continental United States, a powerful example of how ERDC is able to leverage the Army Corps’ Civil Works mission into technologies for use by the military.
Recently, ERDC has begun to apply its latest state-of-the-art ship simulator to military uses by assisting the U.S. Marine Corps in conducting a virtual amphibious assault on a location very similar to those encountered during the invasion of Inchon, South Korea, in 1950. The U.S. Navy provided experienced craftmasters to pilot the Landing Craft Utility 1600 series used in the virtual assault. Their assessment was that the simulator provided a realistic environment and that the handling of the virtual Landing Craft Utility closely resembled that of an actual craft.
“We are applying the information that we gain from the environmentals that we’re able to place inside this particular ship handler,” said Thomas McKenna, an amphibious operations subject-matter expert at Marine Corps Intelligence Activity. “Our greatest difficulty when responding to crisis is that in a lot of these areas there are denied areas or areas where we have not typically operated consistently. The idea is to show what’s in the realm of the possible, given certain conditions, and provide people the ability to assess the risk for whatever that mission is that you’re trying to accomplish.”
BEYOND THE BEACHHEAD
ERDC’s work is also supporting the Army’s development of its Next-Generation Combat Vehicle. ERDC’s developmental investments in the Autonomous Navigation Virtual Environment Laboratory (ANVEL) and its Virtual Autonomous Navigation Environment (VANE) allow virtual testing of autonomous, unmanned ground vehicle systems across complex environments. As highlighted in the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy, understanding the maneuverability and off-road mobility of autonomous platforms is of strategic interest to the Army. ERDC’s tools are cornerstones in assessing real-time data and providing early insight into how well autonomous algorithms handle austere conditions.
ANVEL users are able to build complete models of their intelligent vehicle systems, place those models into a virtual environment and perform interactive testing, while collecting data from virtual sensors. The modeling and simulation package combines realistic terrain graphics with sophisticated algorithms. It bridges the gap between high-visual, game-like driving simulators and very coarse engineering software packages—showing quality performance on real-world platforms.
VANE serves as a high-fidelity tool to simulate unmanned ground vehicle operations, acting as a virtual proving ground. By using DOD High Performance Computing Modernization Program assets, VANE can accurately reproduce sensor-environment and vehicle-terrain interactions. Its goal is to provide the joint services with a reusable, free, open-source modeling and simulation tool to design, develop, test and evaluate performance of autonomous unmanned ground vehicles.
With high-fidelity simulations of on- and off-road mobility, VANE also provides a tool for end-to-end mission simulations to help users better develop requirements, tactics, techniques and procedures for new autonomous unmanned ground vehicles. When the ship simulator works in conjunction with VANE and ANVEL, planners have a complete ship-through-shore package to shape projection, movement and maneuver mission planning.
“When we pair these two things, we’re not just projecting materiel and personnel onto the shore … but the timing of the offloading piece gets better because we can actually simulate it with ANVEL,” said Keith Martin, a research physicist at ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory. “We are able to start out at sea and reach all the way to the ultimate objective with one tool.”
Anticipating locally changing operating-environment conditions can be a challenge in anti-access and area denial environments. ERDC’s modernized software and synthetic environments help leaders to refine operational execution windows and predict likely outcomes during realistic operating conditions. This synthetic rehearsal gives leaders early insight into hidden hazards, natural pitfalls and potential vulnerabilities so they can pivot and ensure the mission’s ultimate success.
“Multi-domain convergence has three processes we’re trying to merge: stimulating the enemy, seeing the enemy, and striking the enemy,” said Lt. Col. Mark Van Horn, science and technology chief at the Intelligence Battle Lab at Arizona’s Fort Huachuca. “I think that one of the key roles ERDC has in shaping technologies for tomorrow’s warfighters is understanding how soil conditions, weather and hydrology all interact to impact the Army’s ability to do those three things.”
From the earliest days of the United States, military engineers have supported senior leaders’ decisions with sound data and professional judgment. Indeed, ERDC and the Army engineers continue to discover, develop and deliver solutions for Army and joint service to win during multi-domain operations.
The diversity of the engineer mission and ERDC’s portfolio will require multiple article installments. Future articles will highlight ERDC’s critical role in mitigating the enemy’s layered standoff during armed conflict, cutting-edge geospatial engineering for convergence of operations, and modernization of installations to streamline fielding and training of the Army’s emerging capabilities.
For more information, contact ERDCinfo @usace.army.mil.
NICHOLAS BOONE is the senior scientific technical manager and technical director for Force Projection/Maneuver Support at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. He is currently completing his M.S. in civil engineering from Mississippi State University and received his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Louisiana Tech University. He holds five patents and is a member of the Society of American Military Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Association of the United States Army and the Army Engineer Association.