WASHINGTON — The U.S. and allies are using a new forum started by the Pentagon’s top artificial intelligence office to work toward developing AI systems that can connect in the future to help them fight better together.

The Partnership for Defense, started by the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center last September, is laying the groundwork for future AI-enabled joint war-fighting capabilities that will need to connect to each other for the U.S. and its allies to effectively fight as a coalition.

One day, the countries could collaborate on other AI-backed efforts, such as sharing data from sensors that track how machines run to predict when maintenance is needed before parts fail, possibly during a mission when there’s no time to lose for repairs or replacements. Or the allies could use AI for data about shipping and supply movements to improve logistics efficiency.

The end goal is for the allied nations to be ready to cooperate easily on AI-driven projects in the future.

But first, the U.S. and partner countries must start at a basic level of readying data for artificial intelligence, viewing the information as a war-fighting resource. That starts with keeping and storing all of the facts and figures that AI needs to work.

The U.S. and its allies “messed up in … not using data or looking at data over the last several decades as a resource,” said Stephanie Culberson, head of international AI policy at the JAIC. “For instance, if we were to go to war again in Afghanistan, would we have all the data that we pulled in the last 20 years? You can probably guess the answer to that.”

The partnership came from smaller discussions that the JAIC had with like-minded nations. After several interactions, it became clear that the nations struggled with the same challenges around scaling AI efforts, educating and training the workforce on AI, and overcoming internal cultures resistant to technological change, Culberson said.

“We started to realize that many of us are grappling with the same hard problems in implementing AI into our defense organizations,” Culberson said. “Instead of staying within those siloes on our own, I thought, ‘Well, why don’t we pull together some of the strongest nations that are really focused on this in their defense sector and do this together?’”

Thus far, the partnership includes defense representatives from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Israel, Japan, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The group has twice gathered to identify common challenges, and meetings are expected three times a year.

The Partnership for Defense is not working on codevelopment of AI systems, rather it’s focused on preparing allied militaries to be “AI-ready,” as Culberson puts it.

“We decided to talk about building blocks that we all need to work through that are massive undertakings for ministries of defense,” Culberson said. “For instance, how are we handing data? For the most part, not very well.”

The meetings are different than typical international conversations with foreign militaries, which can be rigid, Culberson said. The partnership meetings encourage open dialogue, including roundtable discussions and TED Talk-style presentations describing how ministries tackle challenges and analysis of case studies for lessons learned.

In the next two years of the partnership, Culberson said that she “really wants to have a solid foundation” for AI-readiness, developing a way to assess whether members have achieved that readiness. In a few years, she said, the countries could consider codeveloping a data aggregation capability.

“This is how we do interoperability as well,” Culberson said. “We don’t want to get too far down the path of everyone’s doing their own thing … in their siloes, and then we look up and next time we need to go to war together, or even humanitarian assistance or any of those types of things where we might use our militaries together, nothing is interoperable.”

The JAIC’s role on the international stage

Since its inception about two years ago, the JAIC’s mission has been to help the Pentagon’s internal components adopt artificial intelligence, through its national mission initiatives or by delivering services. Adding international engagement to its portfolio also serves that mission.

“I see it has kind of the same thing actually for international: to help enable key allies and partners, which at the end of the day is going to make our war fighter more ready to have ready allies at their side,” Culberson said.

U.S. military services are starting to try to include allies and partners as they develop their joint war-fighting systems, such as the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System or the Army’s Project Convergence.

Those service-led programs, which will rely heavily on artificial intelligence, are how the services plan to connect sensors and shooters for future battles. Work with allies now will ease challenges plugging them together later.

“In this broader strategic competition between the U.S. and China, as it continues to evolve, the Defense Department will need these avenues for partnerships,” said Megan Lamberth, research associate at the Center for a New American Security. “It allows for increased interoperability between partner militaries, and it gives countries access to broader, more robust shared datasets.”

The partnership could lead to talent-sharing programs that would benefit the Pentagon, Lamberth added, particularly given workforce shortages in AI professionals.

The Partnership for Defense has an “open door” to adding more allies, Culberson said. While other nations have expressed interest, members plan to set admission standards before expanding.

“I don’t want it just to be the U.S. projecting, which is often I think expected when we have multilateral conversations like this,” Culberson said. “Instead I want it to be truly a forum where like-minded allies can come together and share and learn.”

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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