WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force must embrace artificial intelligence to remain dominant in a world where militaries increasingly employ advanced computing and make decisions at a quicker clip, according to the service’s top IT official.

“We have to automate more. That’s kind of a first step,” Chief Information Officer Lauren Knausenberger said Nov. 30 at a livestreamed event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “If we tried to do everything today manually, leveraging the same processes that we always have, we’re not going to have the speed that we need for any of our kill chains.”

The Air Force already uses AI for predictive maintenance, education, imagery analysis and more. The technology is also a pillar of the Advanced Battle Management System, the service’s contribution to Joint All-Domain Command and Control, an attempt to seamlessly link forces across land, air, sea, space and cyber.

The speed and flexibility afforded by AI and machine learning, U.S. defense officials say, are needed to maintain an edge over technologically savvy competitors including China and Russia. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence similarly concluded the U.S. must take AI seriously, as it will “reorganize the world.” The Pentagon has followed suit, launching the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, which subsumed the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and other older entities.

Knausenberger on Wednesday said the Air Force is “doing some very interesting things” with AI, “some just in the lab, some on the battlefield, some embedded in things that we are building today.”

The service in 2020 deployed AI as a pilot’s sidekick, allowing it to control sensing and navigation aboard a U-2 Dragon Lady surveillance plane. Leaders at the time hailed it a watershed moment.

More recently, AFWERX, an Air Force office in charge of finding new and innovative ways to use technology, established a program called Autonomy Prime to learn about autonomous kit the private sector is developing and how the military can appropriate it, Defense News reported.

The Pentagon’s public spending on AI, including autonomy, ballooned to $2.5 billion last year from a little more than $600 million in fiscal 2016.

More than 600 AI projects — including several related to major weapons systems, such as the MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle — were underway as of April 2021. More than 230 are traced back to the Army, according to an analysis conducted by the Government Accountability Office. The Air and Space forces together are handling more than 80 AI projects.

“Our secretary has said a few times that in the future, we expect AI to just be a part of all of our weapons platforms,” Knausenberger said. “That is definitely notable, in that as we build out capabilities of the future, it’ll be in the statement of work, that we have this capability.”

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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