14.1 C
New York
Monday, April 15, 2024

To Win the Next War, the Pentagon Needs Nerds

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the US Department of Defense turned to a team of machine learning and artificial intelligence experts to make sense of an avalanche of information about the conflict.

“We have surged data scientists forward,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told WIRED in a recent interview. These tech experts crafted code and machine learning algorithms, creating systems that are “especially valuable for synthesizing the complex logistics picture,” she said.

Due to the sensitive nature of operations in Ukraine, Hicks says she cannot provide details of what the data team has done. But Hicks says this helps prove a point that she and others have been making within the Pentagon for some time—that technology is fundamentally changing the nature of war, and the US needs to adapt in order to maintain its edge.

“I like to say that bits can be as important as bullets,” Hicks says, in reference to the importance of software, data, and machine learning. It isn’t only that technology is advancing more rapidly and in different ways; the US also faces fresh international competition in emerging areas like AI. Russia might be less of a technological threat, but China has emerged as a formidable new near-peer rival. “We know that by the Chinese government’s statements in writing that they're looking very much to advance on the AI front,” Hicks says.

During the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, AI algorithms have been used to transcribe and interpret Russian radio chatter, and to identify Russian individuals in videos posted on social media, using facial recognition tech. Low-cost drones that use off-the-shelf algorithms to sense and navigate are also proving a potent new weapon against more conventional systems and strategies. An unprecedented hacking campaign against Russia shows how cybersecurity skills have become a potent weapon against a nation-state adversary. New weapons can now be developed at breakneck speed, too, as was shown earlier this month when the US said it had developed a custom drone specifically for use by Ukrainian forces. By contrast, the US Air Force’s latest fighter jet, the F-35, has been in development for over 20 years, at an estimated lifetime cost of $1.6 trillion.

Although the US is helping Ukraine punch above its weight by providing financial aid, conventional weapons, and new technologies, there are those—inside and outside of the Pentagon—who worry that the US is ill-equipped to adapt to the challenges presented by war in the future.

“Every large company has the same problem,” says Preston Dunlap, who resigned last week as chief architect of the Department of the Air Force, a role that involved modernizing technology development and acquisition. Dunlap compares the situation to the way big successful businesses can be disrupted by technological change and more nimble competitors, a phenomenon that the business school professor Clayton Christensen called “the innovator’s dilemma.

Dunlap penned an open resignation letter in which he recommended steps that the Department of Defense should take to embrace a more rapid, experimental, and technology-focused culture. He says just like a business faced with technological disruption and more nimble competitors, the US military struggles to change direction because it encompasses so many people, systems, and ingrained ways of doing things. He suggests that advocates for change, such as Hicks, can only do so much. “I am concerned about operators having to go into some kind of contingency [conflict] without the available technology,” he says. “That's just not a place I want us to be.”

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

A 2019 report commissioned by the Defense Innovation Board, which provides the secretary of defense and deputy secretary of defense with recommendations around technology adoption, warns that software and its development has become a crucial strategic issue for the US military. The board also notes that the DOD cannot typically compete with the salaries tech companies offer software developers.

The DOD has taken numerous steps to boost its technological chops, with a particular focus on AI. In August 2015, the department set up the Defense Innovation Unit, which is tasked with coordinating AI across different areas of the military. The latest move, on April 25, saw the Pentagon announce its first chief digital and artificial intelligence officer, Craig Martell, previously head of machine learning at Lyft. Martell was appointed by Hicks to help advance adoption and use of the technology.

There is some debate around how many software engineers and data scientists the DOD actually needs to hire itself, and how much of the work it can outsource. Job ads highlight the defense world's shift toward a software-centric outlook. Emsi, a company that tracks job listings, says 33 percent of 370,000 defense industry job advertisements it analyzed mention software development or data science skills, a figure that has grown 91 percent since 2017.

There are many ways AI and other technology could benefit the US military besides aiding with intelligence gathering and analysis or making weapons smarter. Small trials have shown that the technology can help manage logistics, predict when machinery will fail, and improve veteran care.

But the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a Pentagon initiative to assess the changing technology landscape, has warned that the US needs to invest more in new technologies and work more closely with the private sector to avoid being blindsided by China.

Given the scarcity of in-house talent, the Pentagon has turned to the private sector for help. But attempts to increase technological resources by working closely with Silicon Valley have been fraught. Project Maven, an Air Force initiative to collaborate with tech firms, sparked controversy in 2019 when Google employees protested the company's decision to develop technology for analyzing aerial imagery. Workers at Microsoft staged protests over that company’s military contracts the same year. The Pentagon continues to work with some Silicon Valley firms, but it is still likely to see pushback from some tech workers over high-profile military projects.

Will Roper oversaw procurement for the Air Force between 2018 and 2021 and led the development of groundbreaking experiments involving the rapid deployment of AI in military aircraft using agile software methods borrowed from the tech world. He says that until the DOD is able to draw on more technical expertise, perhaps by getting technical experts to volunteer their time, “we're probably not going to see the technology lined up in the military with where it is in the private sector.” “Why are we still dead in the water when it comes to talent?” he says.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

Some experts say the DOD has to reinvent existing relationships with the private sector. They argue that awarding multibillion-dollar contracts to companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, or Northrop Grumman to develop technology over many years is hardly conducive to fast-paced innovation.

Chris Brose is chief strategy officer for Anduril, a company working on a range of defense systems incorporating technologies that have emerged in Silicon Valley, such as virtual reality and AI. Brose says new technologies need to be developed and iterated on more rapidly. Anduril, which was cofounded by the virtual reality pioneer Palmer Luckey, is one of several new defense companies hoping to disrupt the existing order by doing things differently. “When you strip away all of the opacity and the complexity and the jargon, this is a very simple story of disruption,” says Brose.


More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!The takedown of the web’s biggest child abuse siteGet ready for a decade of uranus jokesHow to use BeReal, the “unfiltered” social media appShould all video games be replayable?The fake agents case baffling US intelligence experts👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database📱 Torn between the latest phones? Never fear—check out our iPhone buying guide and favorite Android phones

Related Articles

Latest Articles