Artificial Intelligence – A Game Changer and Decisive Edge

By Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, Director, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center 

On July 16, our new secretary of defense was asked by Congress what the No. 1 priority for DOD technology modernization ought to be. He responded with this:

“For me it’s artificial intelligence. I think artificial intelligence will likely change the character of warfare, and I believe whoever masters it first will dominate on the battlefield for many, many, many years. It’s a fundamental game changer. We have to get there first.” 

Secretary Esper’s statement about the importance of bringing advanced AI capabilities into the DOD could not be more clear. His words echo the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which states that AI will be a critical source of the future competitive military advantage. Not only that: AI will be a vital source of improved efficiency and effectiveness for the full spectrum of DOD operations, from the back office to the front lines.   

Navy Airman Apprentice Justin Yu, left, and Navy Airman Apprentice Bradley Tagge, aviation machinist’s mates assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85, conduct maintenance on an MH-60S Sierra at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., May 4, 2019. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa K. Russell

The adoption of AI technology is often compared with the invention and harnessing of electricity. Nations around the world are working to adopt AI into all facets of government, industry, and national security. The organization I lead, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, or JAIC, was established in June 2018 precisely to help our military address the challenges and opportunities presented by the global acceleration of AI-enabled technology.  

As the focal point of the DOD AI strategy, the JAIC provides a common vision, mission, and focus to drive DOD-wide AI capability delivery. Unlike our DOD colleagues at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the military research laboratories, we do not focus on fundamental research. Rather, the JAIC exists to harness the existing state-of-the-art in AI from commercial industry and academia and rapidly make it available to and useful for DOD missions — in other words, accelerating AI adoption and integration. We are also working closely with the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering to find new opportunities to transition the most promising new AI technologies, pilots and prototypes into fielded solutions.

Fundamentally, JAIC is focused on delivering AI-enabled solutions that benefit our men and women operating at the tip of the spear. This is a challenge our JAIC team has fully embraced, and it’s creating a natural sense of urgency underpinned by the promise that AI can deliver to our troops operating across the globe, in terms of supporting and protecting service members, safeguarding our citizens, defending our allies, and improving the effectiveness, affordability and the speed of our operations. We understand the table stakes are high, and the work we do now to accelerate and deliver AI to the warfighter will have a profound impact on our nation’s ability to field a preeminent and capable military force.   

When I assumed the role as director of the JAIC in January, I inherited a new, innovative, and evolving organization that’s been likened to a tech startup within the DOD. We’re recruiting a diverse cadre of talent from across the services, components, industry and academia who are working together to explore AI applications, solve problems, and deliver results. One unique aspect of the JAIC is that we are not organized like a typical DOD activity. We developed a flatter organizational structure with cross-functional teams of acquisition specialists, mission-specific personnel and technical experts working alongside field operators to test, evaluate, field and sustain AI applications.  

An RQ-7 Shadow tactical unmanned aerial vehicle waits to be loaded onto its launch system at an airstrip in Corning, Calif., Nov. 16, 2018. Army Spc. Amy Carle, California Army National Guard

The JAIC’s cross-functional teams are focused on important national mission initiatives such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response, for which we are testing solutions to provide more timely situational awareness using AI-enhanced detection in aerial and satellite imagery with the ultimate goal to save lives of those impacted by natural disasters. Another initiative is focused on AI-enabled predictive maintenance, with the goal to improve aircraft availability and increase readiness. We are also exploring methods to shrink timelines for cyber-threat situational awareness using AI-enhanced sense making technology. Additionally, we have emerging initiatives in the medical and administrative fields that have the potential to improve efficiency and the quality of services within the DOD.  For fiscal year 2020, our central project will be what we are calling “AI for Maneuver and Fires,” with individual lines of effort oriented on warfighting operations – for example, operations-intelligence fusion, joint all-domain command and control, accelerated sensor-to-shooter timelines, autonomous and swarming systems, target development; and operation center workflows.

Our other major effort, one that is instrumental to our AI Center of Excellence concept, is what we are calling the Joint Common Foundation, or JCF. The JCF will be a platform that will provide access to data, tools, environments and other certified platforms to enable software/AI engineers to rapidly develop, evaluate, test and deploy AI-enhanced solutions to warfighters. It is designed to lower the barriers to entry, democratize access to data, eliminate duplicative efforts, and increase value added. This platform will reside on top of an enterprise cloud infrastructure.

AI can transform the future force by providing enabling layers for nearly every application we perform. To achieve this transformation, our JAIC teams will continue to partner with industry and academia to harness AI technologies that aspire to improve the nation’s odds of long-term security, peace and stability through various dialogues and multilateral cooperation on the ethical and safe use of AI for national security. We will also continue our quest to cultivate and attract world-class AI talent through training, targeted recruitment and engagement with the nation’s AI thought leaders and firms.  

Army Lt. Col. Jason Gracida, 2nd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment commander, and Army Sgt. Maj. Michael Gardner work in a tactical operations center during a National Training Center rotation on Fort Irwin, Calif., June 5, 2019. Air Force Master Sgt. Joshua C. Allmaras, Idaho Air National Guard

The foundation for AI adoption is guided by ethical foundations deeply rooted in our nation’s values and respect for rule of law. At the core, our service members remain our enduring source of strength. In keeping with our nation’s values, we are investing in AI systems that are resilient, reliable and secure that will empower, not replace, our operators in the field. We aim to deliver AI-enabled information, tools and systems that enable service members to operate and perform with the right tools and with a decisive edge in all domains. That decisive edge will keep us ahead of our strategic competitors in AI innovation and transform the DOD for the security challenges we will face in the 21st century and beyond. 

We are wary about the AI hype prevalent today. AI is not a magical solution, a specific “thing” to be sprinkled on top of any problem to yield miraculous results. AI is an enabler that is much more like electricity than a weapon system. AI’s most valuable contributions will come from how we use it to make better and faster decisions. This includes gaining a deeper understanding of how to optimize human-machine teaming. We want AI to increase operational effectiveness, accelerate integration of autonomous systems, and enhance efficiency across the Defense Department. This is less about any individual technology than it is about how we design, experiment with and employ AI-enabled operating concepts to gain competitive advantage from the tactical to the strategic level — in some cases perhaps only gaining a fleeting upper hand, and in others, achieving a sustained strategic advantage against a peer competitor. As we look to a future of “informatized warfare” comprising algorithm against algorithm and widespread use of autonomous systems, we need to design operating concepts that harness AI, 5G, enterprise cloud and, eventually, quantum. This critical path from a hardware-centric to an all-domain digital force will shape the department for decades to come.

We welcome and embrace ideas and thoughts on how we can deliver AI solutions that help enable the success of our operators in all domains and environments. Through our collaborative and thoughtful efforts, we firmly believe AI can fulfill its promise as game-changing technology that helps deliver a more innovative and capable military for our nation, for our service members, for the American people, and for our allies and partners.  

Air Force Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan is the Director, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, Office of the Department of Defense Chief Information Officer. General Shanahan is responsible for accelerating the delivery of artificial intelligence-enabled capabilities, scaling the departmentwide impact of AI and synchronizing AI activities to expand joint force advantages.

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