Exclusive: Utah’s Dugway hosts massive war games involving spy planes, a secret missile and more

Army, Air Force, Marines take part in EDGE21 “scrimmage” as the military continues to modernize its weapons and tactics.

(Courtesy of the U.S. Army) An Army ATV, known as a DAGOR, fires a small drone from a pneumatic tube during EDGE21 training exercises at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground, held May 3 to May 14, 2021. The drone, used primarily for surveillance, can assist squads in the field.

Dugway Proving Ground • Three Blackhawk helicopters land in the dirt on an unsparingly sunny day, and swarms of soldiers wearing futuristic goggles bound out.

That’s when they learn their plans have changed. An experimental drone, only a few feet long, has flown ahead and determined their earlier information is outdated. The threat has moved. They must adjust their path, but doing so creates a problem. They have lost cover.

Lt. Frankie Whalen, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, pulls out a black tablet and drags his index finger along the screen with quick, intuitive movements. He takes control of the drone and repositions it in his blind spot, providing a constant video stream that will let him know if anyone is sneaking up on his team.

For U.S. Army brass, watching this large training scenario play out at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground last week represented a big success. They’d never had a squad leader take control of a drone in the field. And all they’d given Whalen was a 15- to 30-minute training course.

(courtesy of the U.S. Army) Lt. Frankie Whalen, with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, uses a tablet to control a drone during the EDGE21 training exercise at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground, held May 3 to May 14, 2021. This was one of more than 50 technological firsts during the war games.

It was one of more than 50 technological firsts for the Army Futures Command during the war games dubbed EDGE21. Besides the Army, the two-week event involved the Air Force, Marines, spy planes, drones, top secret weapons and new technologies meant to give the U.S. military an overwhelming advantage against the most sophisticated of adversaries.

It was also a first for Dugway and may well launch a new role for the military installation known best for testing how equipment stands up to chemical or biological weapons.

“It’s good for Dugway; it’s good for the Army; it’s good for the Department of Defense to be able to have a place to demonstrate these technologies early and often,” said Col. Scott Gould, Dugway’s commander, “so that they can mature and end up in some shape or form being fielded to the force.”

The future of war

Military leaders are preparing for a shift from the counterinsurgency tactics deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq to a potentially far more complicated landscape, where fighting could occur everywhere from the upper atmosphere with satellites to deep in the ocean. And wherever the fighting goes, they want to have the best technology, they want it connected to a solid, secure network, and they want it easy to use by those on the front lines.

To get there takes planning and experimentation, troubleshooting complex systems even as technologies evolve rapidly.

Last year, the Army launched Project Convergence, landmark war games staged in Yuma, Ariz., that intended to break down barriers between the services as they push the boundaries of new weapons systems. This will be an annual event, with the next one planned for this fall and will span Army bases across the country. The year after that, British and Australian militaries will take part.

The goal is to have integrated all of this technology by 2035 into one seamless joint command, allowing the military to deploy anywhere, whenever it needs to, avoiding detection by rivals such as China and Russia, to take out enemy forces with the least amount of risk to the lives of U.S. soldiers.

EDGE21 stands for Experimentation Demonstration Gateway Event, but to set the military jargon aside, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville describes it this way: Testing new technology in a lab would be practice. EDGE21 was a scrimmage. Project Convergence is the game.

“You get out here,” he said at Dugway, “and get the pads on you, bang around a little bit.”

Gaining an edge

While EDGE21 included new technologies from space down to the soldiers walking in the West Desert, the focus was on what the Army calls the upper and lower tier air. Upper air is the domain of F-35s and spy planes, while lower air is the dominion of helicopters and drones.

The war games centered around imaginary islands in the Pacific, some with decidedly Utah names such as Wendover Island and the Bonneville Straights. The point was to simulate the long distances the military will need to navigate and the disconnected landscapes that can make it hard to connect to secure networks.

In one scenario, the Artemis spy plane scouted the objective from the upper air. Once confirmed, the joint command sent F-35s to one target and a new top-secret “loitering munition” to another, blowing them up simultaneously. That munition was a new missile launched from the ground that can hover near a potential target waiting for the go-ahead to strike, but the Army wouldn’t say much about the weapon. In an exercise observed by top Army brass and reporters Friday, the loitering munition hit two out of three targets, which was good enough for those at EDGE21. The goal was to test new technologies and learn what needs to be refined.

“This was not a canned demonstration. We are actually trying to make things work,” said Gen. John Murray, who leads the Army Futures Command. “And sometimes they are just not going to work.”

A second scenario involved an air assault. This is the one that involved the Blackhawks and smaller drones, which are used for surveillance but also can carry weapons. The soldiers were outfitted by Microsoft-created augmented reality goggles that can show maps, infrared and night vision, and video feeds. As they flew in the back of the Blackhawks, soldiers were able to tap into the camera mounted on the bottom of the copter, allowing them to “see through” the aircraft as it flew. Soldiers said they liked the new technology, but want it to be integrated into equipment they already carry and toughened up to handle real-world scenarios.

(courtesy of the U.S. Army) Pfc. Matthew Zeisler, with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, is shown wearing IVAS-enabled goggles during the EDGE21 training exercise at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground, held May 3 to May 14, 2021. The goggles allow soldiers to see maps and video in the field and switch to night vision as needed.

The 82nd Airborne troops were the “guinea pigs” for this event, said Pfc. Matthew Zeisler, of Ohio. They had not handled many of these technologies before they arrived May 3 at Dugway. He said it didn’t take long to learn and adapt, but Zeisler found the capabilities to be impressive. He has spent three years in the Army, and he recalled training with a simple rifle.

“This feels like it was off a video game,” he said after the exercise, still loaded up with everything he had in the field. “Here we are with a drone in the air we are controlling off of a tablet.”

Zeisler, Whalen and other soldiers gave their honest assessments of the gear to their commanders. They also pushed the envelope. As an example, at the urging of the 82nd Airborne, a small drone, launched by a pneumatic tube, was attached to a military-grade all-terrain vehicle and fired while the ATV was on the move. It marked another first.

“We did 56 things for the first time, but we probably planned 35,” said Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen. “Having the soldiers here just added that octane.”

The proving ground

Dugway has never seen anything like EDGE21. It was far more complicated than any training held in Utah’s West Desert, involving 600 participants, 20 partner organizations and six hangars, including one transformed into a joint command center.

No one working could recall the last time such a high-ranking official as acting Secretary of the Army John Whitley visited, so it has been at least decades.

This desolate place, occupied by pronghorns and rattlesnakes, became a military installation during World War II. Its primary mission is to test chemical and biological agents on military equipment, or weapons that could neutralize such deadly substances. To do that, the military wanted a huge chunk of land set aside from where people live. Over time, Dugway has mushroomed to nearly 800,000 acres. Those out there like to say that’s bigger than Rhode Island, and it is about 40 minutes away from Stockton, the nearest town.

This big tract of land with restricted airspace abuts the Utah Test and Training Range, largely used by the Air Force. It’s not surprising the military has used Dugway to test drones, including the larger Gray Eagles, at the Rapid Integration and Acceptance Center.

These tests, which happen nearly daily, drew the Army to Dugway for this big joint exercise. And the Army’s desire to iteratively improve these technologies, testing them in mock war scenarios, is likely to bring the forces back here in the years to come.

“The airspace has been so good,” Rugen said, “and Dugway has been so flexible.”

Among those in attendance for Friday’s demonstration was Utah National Guard’s Maj. Gen. Michael Turley, who said in his 36 years in the service he’s seen the Army go from “medieval warfare techniques to ‘Star Trek.’” His thoughts after watching a classified version of the war games: The National Guard needs to remain in “lockstep” with the active-duty Army as these technologies mature.

He also said it made sense to hold events like EDGE21 at Dugway, where the terrain, including the nearby mountains, offer dynamic opportunities to push these weapons to their limits.

“I would expect to see more of this,” he said. “I hope.”

Just how far these new drones can fly is classified. How fast? Classified. What weapons can they drop? Well, that could be a conventional warhead or an electronic weapon or something yet to be created. But as those technologies evolve, the Army has more space available than it used during EDGE21.

Gould, the Dugway commander, said the event only spanned about half the proving ground’s vast airspace.