WASHINGTON ― The Pentagon has a reputation for failing to attract the high-tech experts it needs to compete against modern threats, but legislation offered Wednesday aims to turn that around.

The co-founders of the Senate’s artificial intelligence caucus ― Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio ― introduced the bipartisan Armed Forces Digital Advantage Act as a way to establish a career track for computer scientists in the military.

“Much like how the military recruits for and provides incentives to individuals with foreign language skills, senior military leaders and civilian leadership have repeatedly emphasized the need for a workforce with a digital engineering skillset,” Heinrich said. He is the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s sub-panel on strategic forces.

The two founded the AI caucus in March, after the Pentagon released its AI strategy in February and the White House launched the American AI Initiative, meant to boost the government’s role in developing AI technology. The bill was introduced so that it can be considered for inclusion when the SASC marks up its version of the 2020 defense policy bill next week.

Under their proposal, the Pentagon would create a chief digital engineering recruitment and management officer to recruit tech ninjas outside of typical channels, at events like SXSW or through other creative means. It follows the Defense Department’s efforts along similar lines, such as the establishment of Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, a tech hub.

The bill would mandate the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness create and enact a policy to make digital engineering a core competency of the armed forces―to include including data science, machine learning, software engineering, software product management, and artificial intelligence product management.

The services would also have to establish one or more flexible career tracks and identifiers for digital engineering and related digital competencies for each service, including appropriate military occupational specialties, “and meaningful opportunities for career development, talent management, and promotion within such career tracks,” according to a fact sheet.

The conversation about how the military can attract and retain technically proficient workers in the face of stiff private-sector competition is long running. The need has intensified as the military has grown more interested in defending against cyberattacks that themselves use machine learning.

As far back as 2017, the Defense Innovation Board recommended the Pentagon start a new career specialization track for science, technology, engineering and math professionals, as well as a “tech elevator” that would sequester the best and brightest innovators in the department into a special workspace to develop new ideas.

“This bill will implement the recommendations of our military experts to ensure that our armed forces make computer science and digital engineering skills a priority for recruitment and training,” Portman said. “Prioritizing these skills will help ensure our armed forces remain the best in the world.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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