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AUSA 2021: Scarlet Dragon exercises AI-aided kill chain

12th October 2021 - 12:00 GMT | by David Isby in Washington DC

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Rappel training for XVIII Airborne Corps. The corps led the latest Scarlet Dragon exercise, which concluded on 7 October. (Photo: US Army photo/Pfc Hubert D Delany III/22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

The US armed forces are training in ways to shorten the time it takes to transmit mission-critical targeting data from satellites to shooters.

The fourth Scarlet Dragon exercise, completed on 7 October, was led by the XVIII (Airborne) Corps and included observers from the UK, Australia and Canada as well as participants from all six US armed services.

Speaking to reporters at the annual AUSA exhibition in Washington DC on 11 October, COL Joseph Boccino, director of communications for the corps, said the object of the exercise was ‘using AI [artificial intelligence] to shorten the kill chain’.

The Scarlet Dragon series began in September 2020 and the latest exercise — the first to be publicised — attracted extensive industry participation. 

COL Melissa Solsbury, chief data officer for XVIII Corps, said: ‘If they were under contract, we absolutely welcomed them.’

Industry engagement included ‘contractors and vendors, 90-95% with existing contracts, [and] the rest with CRADAs [Cooperative Research And Development Agreements] with four-star level commands, most from SOCOM [Special Operations Command]’, she added.

The most recent Scarlet Dragon exercise focused on the use of AI to improve the performance of what Solsbury said were the ‘slowest components’ of a kill chain: those tasked with sensing.  It is ‘how we leverage commercial satellites’, she added, ‘trying to get these electro-optical or synthetic aperture radar [sensors on satellites] to do quick detects and get these to any number of participants, ground, air or maritime… through automated or augmented chains and then quickly out to shooters, whether an air-breather over the target, a submarine or ground field artillery’.

However, while ‘speed of sensor to shooter is the easier way we can look at metrics’, Solsbury saw that the latest Scarlet Dragon exercise showed that this was ‘important but not the only thing’.

In fact, another major lesson in her opinion was the need to ‘start with training and education’ rather than ‘buying the widget’ when developing improved capabilities in AI or other technologies.

Boccino identified ‘developing a culture of innovation’ across XVIII Airborne Corps as a major benefit of the Scarlet Dragon exercises, using the corps’ assets to develop ‘large-scale targeting, depth of battlespace, deep sensing and targeting that is required in a way they have not been for the last 20 years’, including ‘faster, more effective kill chains’. 

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