Fly-Fight-AI: Air Force Releases New AI Strategy

In the 2019 Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the U.S. Air Force declared its intent to employ artificial intelligence (AI) and dominate the air, space, and cyberspace domains. While recognizing that adversaries are pursuing AI for their own gain, the Air Force strategy provides the ways and means to prevent competitors from gaining an advantage over the United States. It recognizes that leveraging AI means investing in the AI ecosystem: the people, computing infrastructure, data, and policies necessary to support any organization’s deployment of AI technology.

Significantly, the document seeks to catalyze decisions in the upcoming budget and planning cycles to grow the Air Force’s AI ecosystem through focus areas and objectives. Recent surveys of both the federal workforce and the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community highlight that budget and organizational culture, along with a dearth of technical talent in the workforce, are the most frequently cited barriers to AI readiness. Currently, DoD has limited investment in the education and training necessary to make AI a reality in the military. Further, investment in data and information technology (IT) modernization are difficult budgetary commitments. The Air Force’s strategy provides the clear and concise direction for decisions to prioritize budgetary allocations to workforce education initiatives, data management and integration, and IT modernization efforts.

In a departure from historical precedence, the 2019 AI Strategy articulates the importance of incorporating open source software. For several years, open source software faced skeptical audiences in DoD and the service branches as these communities often equate classified and sole source as secure and invaluable. By contrast, open source code is a foundation of software development, particularly in AI and machine learning. The strategy’s objectives to utilize open source software and algorithms support the adoption of both AI technology and software-driven capability throughout the enterprise.

Further, the strategy synchronizes with existing efforts within DoD and should take advantage of ground already covered by others. The Defense Innovation Board’s recently published Software Acquisition and Practices (SWAP) study and the ongoing AI Principles Project seek to address two barriers to AI deployment: an acquisition system ill-suited to software procurement and uncertainty on the boundaries of responsible use of AI in national security.

However, an explicit commitment to an IT refresh is missing from the strategic focus areas. Learning-based AI solutions require access to computing power and modern computer infrastructure, a necessity on par with the data. As the JEDI cloud computing contract continues without a decision amid questions surrounding conflicts of interest, DoD may unintentionally incentivize the services to pursue their own bespoke computing solutions. Regardless of a multi-cloud or single-cloud solution, strategic guidance is necessary for bringing an enterprise computing capability to DoD and the services.

While the 2018 Department of Defense AI strategy and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center work across the defense establishment, each service has a responsibility to consider its own interests and responsibilities with AI. Army Futures Command is headquartered in Austin, a technology hub of talent, education, and industry. Army Directive 2018-18 established the AI Task Force under Futures Command with locations in the National Capital region and in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University. The Task Force must develop and implement the U.S. Army’s AI Strategy as well as coordinate with the Army’s cross-functional teams to advance Army modernization. Similarly, the Air Force recently announced its AI Accelerator program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to collaborate on AI research, development, and application. These moves reflect the new reality of software-driven capability—to get the best technology, the services need a presence with the best talent.

Across the services, the commitment to AI innovation and implementation has been uneven. The U.S. Navy has not publicly released direction on its use of AI. While the Navy and Marine Corps are reportedly increasing investment in AI, particularly advances in robotics and autonomous vehicles through the Office of Naval Research, the absence of strategic guidance from leadership raises questions on the prioritization of AI specifically and digital competency in general.

Ultimately, the true measure of success will be delivering and integrating an AI capability in support of the mission. Digital literacy cannot be ignored by any service that wants to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. It is improbable that allocating the necessary budget, investing in upskilling the workforce, committing to an IT refresh, and deploying a technology that evolves at the speed of software could be executed and coordinated through years of budget cycles without codified strategy and guidance. By providing direction to the force and creating a mechanism for accountability within the organization, the Air Force is making a bet that it can set the pace for AI deployment.

Lindsey Sheppard is an associate fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Lindsey R. Sheppard