Between the kickoff of a new presidential administration, a seasoned (and recent) wartime leader as the new secretary of Defense and a government-wide modernization push, change is under way at the Pentagon. And as 2021 shifts into gear, the U.S. military is operating against a backdrop of not just these changes, but also an evolving threat landscape.
Chiefs across the service branches over the past year made clear their sharp focus on technology-driven dominance over near-peer adversaries, including China and Russia. One result of this emphasis is a collaborative effort to operate jointly – and more effectively – across battle domains and between branches, levels and areas of responsibility. This mindset has given rise to the concept of (Combined) Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2/JADC2.
“We’ll have to have capabilities that allow us to present a credible threat, a credible deterrent … to China in the future,” retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the new Defense secretary, said in his Jan. 19 Senate confirmation hearing. “We’ll have to make some strides in the use of quantum computing, the use of AI, the advent of connected battlefields, the space-based platforms. Those kinds of things I think can give us the types of capabilities that we’ll need to be able to hold large pieces of Chinese military inventory at risk.”
That’s the goal behind CJADC2, which is currently underpinned by a handful of key programs focused on training, experimentation and expansion. These include the Army-led Project Convergence that will return for an expanded run in 2021 with Air Force participation after a successful 2020 exercise, and the Navy’s Project Overmatch, a comprehensive effort targeting buildout of networks, infrastructure, data architecture, tools and analytics. The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, as well as weapons systems and platforms from across the services, will also be essential to end-to-end success of the concept in execution.
But at the center of it all is artificial intelligence – the driving force that provides machine-speed situational awareness and informing decision-making up and down the chain of command.
“This is about your insight into the battlefield. This is about your processes for generating that insight. This is about your ability to quickly game potential outcomes and be able to pick what’s best,” Lt. Gen. Mike Groen, director of the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, told Breaking Defense. “JADC2 is a construct where we start bringing capabilities and implementing them now, and then start stitching them together. Every defense agency will develop its own unique AIs.”
Making Battlefield AI into a Reality
Leaders from across the military have made clear that a new race is truly on – the U.S. focus on and application of AI will need to edge out that of China or Russia. And capturing that edge and maintaining its decisive advantage requires superiority in deployed compute power, data integrity, modeling and training AI algorithms, and the ability to collect, synthesize and process data into intelligence on the ground.
While the introduction of AI into battlefield operations may be a newer development, the impetus behind it – particularly the need for real-time collaboration across coalition partners – is not new. Manufacturers already have seen this demand signal and have been working to design and provide high-performance computer solutions capable of incorporating AI in tactical environments while still meeting strict Defense Department requirements.
In the operational theater, those requirements include more CUDA cores and more small, rugged devices used in a variety of applications for specific purposes. For example, applications could focus on detecting imagery, tracking electronic warfare signatures, or executing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Engineers are currently designing and manufacturing dedicated embedded packages – a significant shift away from the large, power-hungry devices of yesterday.
Instead of combining dozens of sensors for situational awareness, operators will shift to feeding data from fewer sensors into AI engines that are scanning images from frame to frame and detecting threats or changes, whether it’s to quickly identify a hypersonic missile or a certain type of plume. The dedicated packages allow for a smaller footprint to do this work and share intelligence at the tactical edge – a crucial element the military is proving out.
“We used ground robots paired with small UAVs to digitally map and transmit that map over the network so that it could be aggregated and then sent across the force,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, director of the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, said in a Sept. 23 Project Convergence media roundtable. “We used artificial intelligence to autonomously conduct a ground reconnaissance, employ sensors and then pass that information back. We used artificial intelligence in [air defense artillery] target recognition, and machine learning to train algorithms on various types of enemy forces.”
Project Convergence, along with similar exercises aimed at integrating high-powered battlefield computing and improved collaboration, will help define the military’s path into a new era. With the new leadership footstomping the military’s strides under way, the combination of experimentation, training and cutting-edge technology promise to transform the future of warfare. Whether it’s offense or defense, networks or weapons systems, ships or ground vehicles or aircraft, or even space and cyberspace, the mandate is clear: AI will shape tactical operations, starting now.