BALTIMORE — The increasing intricacy of military networks and the digital savvy of other world powers is making artificial intelligence and related programs more desirable for U.S. cyber leaders.

With an explosion of high-tech devices and vehicles and the vast amount of data they pass back and forth come additional security and responsiveness demands. And “anything we can do to buy down that complexity,” by employing AI and machine learning, “would be absolutely fantastic,” according to Lt. Gen. Maria Barrett, the leader of Army Cyber Command.

“We fly planes on autopilot, we land on autopilot,” she said May 2 at the AFCEA TechNet Cyber conference in Baltimore. “This is not scary to run a network in an automated way.”

Automation is a key piece of the Pentagon’s adoption of zero trust, a new cybersecurity paradigm. The approach assumes networks are jeopardized, requiring perpetual validation of users, devices and access. The practice is often likened to “never trust, always verify.”

Defense officials have imposed a fiscal 2027 deadline to implement a level of zero trust, which totals more than 100 activities, capabilities and so-called pillars.

“Zero trust is all about looking at the data. It’s not just about the human being who logs in as an identity because, at the end of the day, that is a data element,” Barrett said. “We do, really, need to get to this place where we’re now starting to think about looking for the anomalous data that occurs in several different aspects of our network in order to identify where the adversary is much sooner, and, going back to my AI and ML piece, in an automated way.”

The U.S. considers China and Russia its most significant cyber threats. Iran and North Korea also make the list, to a lesser degree, as do other autocratic states.

Monitoring all the digital nooks, crannies and potential backdoors and loose ends is already a demanding task, made more so by “the plethora of devices out there that generate traffic,” according to Maj. Gen. Joseph Matos with Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command.

“You have planes, you have weapon systems, you have vehicles, they’re all generating data, they’re all generating information,” he said at the same event where Barrett spoke. “Now, how do you keep track of all that, and how do you manage all that data? Even with zero trust, that’s just an awful lot.”

More than 685 AI projects were underway at the Pentagon as of 2021, the most recent public tally. At least 232 efforts are being handled by the Army, according to the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog. The Marine Corps is dealing with at least 33.

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin 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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