“We lost the initiative early.
“We just couldn’t move fast enough. We were trying to coordinate the campaign through multiple chat rooms and email queries, while they just seemed to flow over us. Our sensor to shooter links could never move from detection to action fast enough to match their tempo. By the time we knew what was going on, the fight seemed to flow to another region or domain. And once we fell behind, we were constantly reacting, never able to make a decisive move.
“We started thinking about what they were going to do to us, instead of how we were going to bring the fight to them. How did they know we were here? How did they execute so fast? Why were we so slow?”
This excerpt from a fictional after-action report tells the story of a force that failed to transform its capabilities to the demands of Information Age warfighting. If the US military is to prevail in such conflicts in the future, it needs to make artificial intelligence a reality – today.
For centuries, military leaders have witnessed transformational changes in warfighting. In most cases it was technological change that drove a highly disruptive adaptation of the military order, sometimes through catastrophic failure of the previous warfighting approach. Interestingly, there was often a significant interval between the emergence of relevant technological change and the actual disruption of military thinking. The ‘artifacts’ of the changing technology landscape appeared well before the need for dramatic military change was perceived.
For example, internal combustion, railroads, telephones, radio, machine-guns, aviation, and massed indirect fire were available well before the advent of World War I. These artifacts of the industrial age appeared gradually, but their combined impact grew exponentially, until, by August 1914, warfare had completely changed.
You could say the impact of those technological changes were eminently foreseeable, but they were just not foreseen. Even militaries that had adopted the artifacts of technological change failed to imagine how suddenly everything would be different.
We are at such a place. We have the technological artifacts of the information age all around us. Many agree that incorporation of Artificial Intelligence is our military future. It is time to make AI our military present.
Artificial Intelligence is a transformative general-purpose technology: Its value is measured in its ability to transform everything it touches. Like electricity in the early 20th century, early AI was a curiosity – until it began to change everything.
AI was long the subject of both fascination and fear. Now, seemingly suddenly, everything is different. Autonomous vehicles, digital storefronts, search, domain awareness, automated production, recommendation engines, natural language processing, social media and entirely new service industries, from online meetings to cloud computing, are artifacts we have all become familiar with.
Information has changed us. We increasingly live and operate in a space where humans and machines work in tandem to process and understand the existential world. Yet, while every member of our data-driven society sees these artifacts daily in their personal activities, these artifacts have penetrated our warfighting functions and processes to a much lesser degree. The difference is telling.
Clearly, it is not a lack of technology that is the problem. It is a lack of implementation of AI across our warfighting capabilities, our support processes, and our business practices. AI’s foreseeable impacts on integrated warfighting remain largely unrealized. We have a generational opportunity to foresee the impact of the technological artifacts of the information age and to implement a transformation at-scale.
How do we do that?
Set The Conditions For Life
540 million years ago, a small number of primitive life-forms suddenly gave rise to a bewildering variety of species. This Cambrian Explosion was a consequence of the establishment of the conditions for life. New species evolved as organisms began to discover and establish themselves in ecological niches.
The conditions are now ripe for a Cambrian Explosion of AI in defense. The required toolkits and environments for integrated Development, Security, and Operations (DEVSECOPS) are increasingly available. Platforms, data tools, training data sets, and algorithms are flourishing. And the Defense Department’s AI ecosystem includes ethical foundations, test & evaluation, functional expertise, an increasingly skilled workforce and responsive policies.
In short, we have the components of a trusted eco-system: Now we need to achieve the necessary scale – ecological niches for AI – in three broad areas: warfighting, support enterprises, and business practices.
Foresee The Forseeable
Transformation will require leaders to re-imagine how they integrate warfighting functions, moving from traditional, manual staff processes to data-driven ‘Decision Engineering.’
AI is not a black box delivered to your door, ready to solve your problems off the shelf. Any successful AI begins, not in the lab, but in the mind of the decision-maker. The burden of getting the process started is on the decision-maker, not a data scientist. Functional leaders and commanders must ask tough questions: What decisions do I make? What data do I rely on? How can I have data presented to me in a time and place that is relevant? To put it simply, if you could make a better decision if you knew ‘X’, then find a way to make X readily available.
The commercial service industry’s broad adoption of AI-enabled capabilities provides readily-tailored solutions for almost every support enterprise or domain. AI can drive data-informed and speed-enhanced decision advantages from the battlefield to the back office. In most cases, it can do it now.
Knit AI Into Enterprise
When we consider each AI application as its own stand-alone thing, we miss the opportunity to create large-scale integrated enterprises. It is only by combining the data flows from many organizations across the Defense Department that we will reap the benefits of the Information Age at an industrial scale.
Effective AI implementation across our warfighting and support communities starts with functional experts armed with hard-won experience in specific real-world domains, not data scientists armed with clipboards. We need to bring the tech to the domain experts, not the other way around.
Then, we need to bring multiple communities of functional experts together to plan for data and warfighting integration. The truly transformational value of AI will come through a seamless “fabric” across the entire enterprise. Integrating decision cycles across the joint force will make all the difference in a fight where minutes or even seconds are the difference between victory and defeat.
Learn From The AI Industry
Unlike defense development programs of the past – where it was defense creating new technology that flowed to the commercial environment – we now have the opportunity to ingest existing technology from the commercial environment into defense. It requires a different set of skills and a new vision. We need to rapidly innovate and adapt. This is the work of implementation.
The AI explosion in the commercial world over the last decades offers tremendous lessons the military would do well to learn. Today’s AI technology base includes companies big and small. They offer a wide array of decision services, many of which exist only in digital form. They use data analytics and AI algorithms to serve up customized predictions in nearly every imaginable business area. In the Defense Department, we need to imagine our own use-cases across all of our warfighting functions and processes. As we implement, we need to create the connective tissues of an AI enterprise that enables cross service cooperation and data sharing across the portfolio of AI efforts. It is necessary to go beyond pursuing custom technical applications and set about improving the art of decision-making itself.
Bring It All Together
The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) was established in 2018 to accelerate the integration of AI across the Department of Defense. Small but mighty, the JAIC seeks to empower and unify bottom-up AI development by innovators across the Defense Department.
The JAIC is a resource for AI practitioners across DoD. It executes and implements selected AI solutions of its own, but its transformational value comes through enabling the AI work of others. The JAIC provides technical services, acquisition support, expertise, and best practices. It also provides the Joint Common Foundation that will soon underpin DEVSECOPS for users across the Defense Department. The JAIC drives ‘enterprise’ outcomes through a broad-based Executive Steering Group representing all elements of Department AI capability. Finally, JAIC helps senior Department leadership track AI readiness and exercise accountability for AI investments and outcomes.
A Generational Opportunity To Act
Our success must be hard-won. The development and integration of AI into the Defense Department is still in its early days. Now is the time for innovative expansion, guided from the top but growing from the bottom up, to let AI implementation proliferate and flourish. Just like startups in the tech industry, we need to be ready to fail early and fail often; but succeed greatly. Our threats have seized the opportunity for military AI integration at scale. We may soon find ourselves in a battlespace defined by data-driven decision-making, integrated action, and tempo. With the right effort to implement AI today, we will find ourselves operating with unprecedented effectiveness and efficiency in the future. We will find ourselves operating as a smooth-flowing warfighting enterprise through all domains. We will find ourselves on the right side of history.
Marine Lt. Gen. Michael Groen is the director of the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).