WASHINGTON — The U.S. and India have agreed to engage in new talks about artificial intelligence and its use in matters of national security, an outgrowth of the nations’ deepening relationship at a time of sharpened Indo-Pacific focus.

News of the inaugural Defense Artificial Intelligence Dialogue came after Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their Indian counterparts, Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar, April 11.

Both the Defense and State departments acknowledged the topic in their accounts of the international get-together.

“The United States and India signed a Space Situational Awareness arrangement, which lays the groundwork for more advanced cooperation in space,” the Pentagon said in a readout. “They also agreed to launch an inaugural Defense Artificial Intelligence Dialogue, while expanding joint cyber training and exercises.”

Jack Shanahan, the first director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, described the prospective talks as a “very significant event,” one that is “a logical extension” of the flagship U.S.-India Artificial Intelligence initiative, or USIAI, launched around this time last year.

“It’s clear India has got an interest in bringing AI into national security,” the retired Air Force lieutenant general told C4ISRNET April 14. “So, this is a good chance for the two defense departments to work together.”

On April 12, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Austin had the chance this week to speak with Singh about “working with them on AI” and other advanced technologies, like 5G.

“All that was part of it,” Kirby said. “I’ll leave it to you to decide whether those are ‘breakthroughs’ or not. But, clearly what we saw yesterday was more concrete examples of the ways we’re going to continue to work with India to strengthen this defense partnership.”

Few additional details were immediately available.

“It seems to me what you’re going to see is an agreement just to, sort of, move forward and talk about potential projects that they can work on together,” Shanahan said. “And what I would expect is that it will not involve war-fighting operations, at least not initially.”

The Defense Department has for years recognized artificial intelligence as a crucial technology, one that can accelerate decision making, enhance data consumption and, more broadly, offer a leg up on the battlefield. As of April 2021, the department was juggling at least 685 artificial intelligence projects, including more than a dozen for major weapons systems.

For decades the Indian community has helped shape artificial intelligence research and development in the U.S., according to Cleo Paskal, a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“At that level, there has been an enormous amount of collaboration and trust building and cross fertilization, if you put it that way, informally,” she told C4ISRNET April 14. The new dialogue, she suggested, brings things to a higher echelon.

“If you look at the leadership in some of the biggest tech companies in the U.S., you’ll see a lot of people who grew up and did their training in India and then flourished in the U.S. in the sector,” Paskal said. “So, it’s a very natural compatibility that is now going much deeper, and in areas that are going to help the defense of both countries against some common enemies.”

The Times of India in February reported the country was “finally taking some steps towards ensuring effective use of artificial intelligence” in its fighting forces. An AI council, led by the defense minister, had been established, the paper noted, as had an AI projects agency.

India’s Ministry of Defense in January 2019 said the process of preparing its forces “for use of artificial intelligence” had begun. AI-based tools, officials added, would improve military decision making, predictive maintenance, situational awareness and security.

Shanahan foresees an artificial intelligence boom in India.

“It has all the elements already in place: an incredibly talented workforce, it’s got a remarkable research community, it’s got a technology ecosystem,” he said. “It just has not really moved as fast as, say, the United States or China or the U.K., or other countries. But I think that explosion’s coming.”

The Defense Department’s 2018 artificial intelligence strategy warned China and Russia are investing significantly in AI for military purposes. Three years later, a report to Congress on Chinese military power advised the country would increasingly leverage big data, cloud computing and automation while pursuing what it called “intelligentized warfare,” defined by the expanded use of AI and other bleeding-edge tech at all levels.

Advancements in adversarial countries threaten to “erode our technological and operational advantages” and destabilize “the free and open international order,” the Defense Department said in its 2018 AI stratagem. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks on April 12 described China as the premier international challenge, whereas Russia poses an “acute threat.”

“Again,” Hicks said at a Defense Writers Group event, “very consistent with the last few strategies in that sense.”

India is obviously aware of the security hazards China imposes, Paskal noted, as the two powers share a border recently bloodied.

“India is literally on the front line with China,” she said. “China killed 20 Indian soldiers in June of 2020, and India is very, very clear that its primary threat is the People’s Republic of China.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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