Panel Details Global Artificial Intelligence Arms Race

December 9, 2020 11:40 AM

Harnessing artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies has become the new arms race among the great powers, a Hudson Institute panel on handling big data in military operations said Monday.

Speaking at the online forum, Richard Schultz, director of the international security program in the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said, “that’s the way [Russian President Vladimir] Putin looks at it. I don’t think we have a choice” but to view it the same way.

He added in answer to a question that “the data in information space is enormous,” so finding tools to filter out what’s not necessary is critical. U.S. Special Operations Command is already using AI to do what in the old days was called political or psychological warfare, in addition to targeting, he added.

SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Richard Clarke said that, in recent conversations he has had with commanders in Afghanistan, between 2001 and 2018 “70 percent of their time was putting bomb on target.” But now, through better use of AI for speedy and precise targeting and a greater understanding of the effectiveness of information operations, they have reversed that ratio.

Clarke and Schultz co-authored the recent monograph “Big Data at War” that details what SOCOM gained in moving out with AI and machine learning.

Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute said during the event that the lessons learned from Special Operations Command work in Afghanistan – starting in 2004 but accelerating in 2008 – is being felt across the Department of Defense. “It’s decision-centric warfare” versus “attrition-centric warfare.” He compared it to “maneuver warfare in the information domain.” He specifically cited the value of Project Maven as improving a field commander’s ability to more effectively command and control his unit’s operation in conflict – from when, what and where to fire, to not shooting at all.

Project Maven is a Pentagon project using machine learning to sort through masses of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data – unmanned systems video, paper, computer hard drives, thumb drives and more – collected by the department and intelligence agencies for operational use across the services. It has sometimes been called “algorithmic warfare.”

In a combat situation, Clark said, “you’re not trying to kill every bad guy out there” but rather are targeting a leader or a group of leaders. AI has already gained a strong foothold in logistics and maintenance in Pentagon thinking and is now making its way to commanders.

“Maven has made some inroads [because] it is actively giving them courses of actions” and even parallel courses of actions to take simultaneously to further confuse an enemy.

Clark added that for more than a decade private industry has applied AI and machine learning to its operations. In doing so, businesses found out how to conduct tasks work with technology and then use the human workforce for other tasks, creating greater output overall.

Maven, however, has had something of a checkered past, particularly after Google withdrew from the project in 2018. Schultz said “the big issue is what happens to Maven a year or so from now when it goes out of business,” as expected under current budget plans.

With that being said, Schultz added that the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and its XVIII Corps “want to be the first” division and corps to apply AI and machine learning across the board, from planning to operations to sustainment. He said the commanders had a special operations background before moving into their new positions, and that experience made them more familiar with what these technologies could do for them.

Clarke said a number of these AI and machine learning ideas would be tested in the Army’s Project Convergence next year.

“Commanders have to set the tone [to allow] ideas to bubble up,” Clarke said of his experience in SOCOM. They have to build the cadre of data scientists and coders and the mid-level managers to become truly effective and sustain efficiencies. When that’s in place, they can share best practices with other units.

All agreed that, even with the adaptation of AI and machine learning to military operations, forward presence would remain important. How many forces, however, could be reduced when forces like Marines have more tools in their hands to succeed. Clark added, “we’re definitely seeing that synergy” in the Marine Corps on applying AI to operations.

“We can prevail” against the Chinese and the Russians in the new arms race, Schultz said. “We just need to be able to harness [artificial intelligence].”

Clarke said his command was putting its “money where its mouth is” when it comes to investing and operating with advanced technologies. “We don’t have a choice.”

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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