WASHINGTON — Leaps in military artificial intelligence and other advanced computing capabilities will be for naught if troops and battlefield systems can’t ultimately connect to one another, and do so securely, an official with U.S. Central Command said.

While the Department of Defense hails AI as a game-changer and the defense industry likewise invests and advertises its wares, it is network infrastructure, basic connectivity, that is “at the core of anything related to” the technology’s real-world adoption, according to Schuyler Moore, CENTCOM’s chief technology officer.

“Algorithms on their own are increasingly less interesting to us,” she said April 27 at a SparkCognition Government Systems event in Austin, Texas. “The question is, do they run on the network with the right classification of other data that we need? Do they run in a particular area, at a forward operating base or on a vessel where the bandwidth is, in technical terms, real bad?”

As the U.S. prepares for potential conflict with China in the Pacific or Russia in Europe it confronts a conundrum: how to link forces far afield, operating covertly or under fire. Both China and Russia are thought capable of hampering U.S. military communications and resisting its targeting and attacks.

The Pentagon is pursuing seamless networking — across land, air, sea, space and cyber — through a multibillion-dollar endeavor known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2. The Army, more specifically, considers network modernization one of its top priorities, alongside an overhaul of its aviation fleet and improved air-and-missile defense.

Moore on Thursday said she and others “had some really interesting, sometimes depressing, occasionally uplifting, conversations with the services about the network infrastructure that we rely on,” both stateside and overseas.

Reliable connections are essential to shuttling data and acting on orders derived from them. A disconnect can mean there is little to be examined and little to be relayed, leaving troops stagnant or ill-informed.

“From start to finish, if I’ve collected data at a certain point, and then I need to push it back to a home base where you can run analytics, and that pipe is severed, suddenly everything downstream of that stops,” said Moore, who previously served as the chief strategy officer for Task Force 59, an outfit designed to quickly fold AI and uncrewed systems into Navy operations.

“If you think about data being the limiting factor for maturity and function of a model, we at the edge have found that network infrastructure and function is the limiting factor for adoption and use of anything,” she said. “I will hammer on this again and again. This is the make or break of whether or not models have any impact on our operations.”

The Air Force in January expressed interest in installing always-on surveillance systems fueled by AI at sites overseen by CENTCOM, including Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Such a setup would slash manpower and man-hours needed to keep tabs on foreign workers, an around-the-clock assignment, the Air Force said in documents published at the time. Al Udeid is the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. It served as a crucial evacuation hub amid the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal.

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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