The technology was developed by the Army’s C5ISR Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground and field-tested this fall on the sidelines of the Army’s Project Convergence wargames. Two contractors, Palantir and General Dynamics, are now helping develop full-up prototypes. The Army aims to start fielding an early version of Rainmaker to its combat brigades in 2023 and hopes to share it with the other services and foreign allies as well.
It’s unglamorous but essential work. All too often, in command posts around the world, the easiest way to get data from one system to another is still to scrawl it on a sticky note. That technique doesn’t scale up all that well to the masses of detailed data required to coordinate complex combat operations.
Even when today’s systems are nominally capable of communicating, they often can’t send full, detailed reports, just summaries and other metadata, pared down to fit in low-bandwidth messaging formats created in the 1990s. For the recipient, that’s a lot like getting all your news from the headlines in your Facebook feed, without ever actually clicking on an article.
“Those standards are limited in terms of how much information we can put in there,” said Upesh Patel, a senior engineer at the C5ISR Center. “You can easily put ‘a tank’ into a targeting message [today, but] what we did with Rainmaker is we were able to add … ‘Hey, look, this is a tank, and it has active protection countermeasures, or it’s up-armored, or it has X, Y, and Z capabilities.’ That information is critical to the weapons systems that we use to target those systems.”
If you can’t share that kind of detailed data – a lot of it, and fast – then you can’t swiftly unleash salvos of precision-guided weapons or train machine-learning algorithms to automate staff work and advise commanders. You can’t realize the Pentagon’s grand vision of a mega-network linking friendly forces across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, called Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2).
For the first-ever Project Convergence exercise this year, Army Futures Command kludged together a good-enough network to pass precision targeting data from Intelligence Community satellites and Marine Corps F-35s to Army aircraft, artillery and ground vehicles. But that was a limited, one-off solution linking small numbers of selected systems.
The military is still far away from the JADC2 vision of linking “every sensor” to “any shooter.” “That’s aspirational,” said Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, network modernization director at Army Futures Command. “Unless you get the underpinnings of a foundational data fabric, it will never happen.”
What is a data fabric, anyway? When I asked the Army, Gallagher and some of his leading technical experts called me to explain. In essence, a data fabric is a set of common technical standards and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that enable otherwise incompatible systems to share data.
That means sharing all their data, not just summaries and other metadata that lack the nitty-gritty detail required to feed AI algorithms or target precision weapons. It means sharing data directly and automatically from machine to machine, without a human having to manually reenter data – a time-consuming and error-prone process. It means sharing data with users holding different levels of…