The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) is blurring the lines between the physical and the digital worlds, creating new opportunities and challenges for defense organizations.

The technology we’re seeing today can help the military run more efficiently and consistently across the full spectrum of joint capability areas. But AI is not without weaknesses, as it lacks the experience necessary to respond effectively in unfamiliar or challenging situations. AI machines are just that: machines. They learn with human guidance. And there’s no immediate prospect of them surpassing the human ability to process and respond to new and unexpected scenarios.

Even though AI isn’t fully battlefield-savvy, it is still capable of delivering great benefits to many areas within the military ecosystem and of enhancing decision making among defense leaders.

However, current government investments in AI pale in comparison to those being made by the private sector. Countries with limited defense budgets must create an ecosystem in which they can draw cost-effectively on AI innovation and talent from the private sector. Failure to invest in AI exposes a modern defense force to serious risks and will result in a loss of defense capabilities over time.

Three areas for transformation

Those organizations that embrace AI can generate the most value by leveraging AI as an executional tool — rather than a strategic tool. Areas that are ripe for AI-fueled transformation include:

♦ Cyber defense. Today’s hackers are smart, determined and ruthless. For that reason, a strong cybersecurity platform must be vigilant, fast and hyper-precise. Any entity dealing with an AI-enabled adversary can ill afford to rely on human resources alone. AI cyber capabilities are a prerequisite.

♦ Defense logistics. Managing the defense supply chain alone is a herculean task, but AI can help ease the burden. Real-time dashboards can reveal the location of tanks and munitions, providing increased situational awareness. Also, by employing AI to handle day-to-day logistics, employees can be re-trained to perform more challenging and higher-value tasks, dramatically increasing the relevance of supply chain data.

♦ Global collaboration. Modern multilateral missions can sometimes involve 20 or more countries. Obviously, sharing information among these entities seamlessly — and securely — presents major challenges. But AI can help by monitoring network traffic to determine priorities and security classifications. AI technology can also synthesize huge chunks of data and allow commanders to visualize it effectively.

The OODA loop

Successfully deploying AI in defense requires three critical components:

1. Sensors collecting data

2. A “brain” (the AI itself) analyzing that data

3. Physical objects or personnel — who act on that analysis

These three components adhere closely to what the military refers to as the “OODA loop” — the cycle of observing, orienting, deciding and acting. Originally based on physical data and activities, the OODA loop is becoming a significant factor in the cyber and virtual worlds.

How does AI help tighten the OODA loop and create greater efficiencies?

In the observe phase, AI is instrumental in gathering data and identifying new data sources. People in any conflict are constantly providing information, effectively acting as sensors. In the future, AI could be used to spy on or collect important data from adversaries or to dupe enemy AI machines into making mistakes.

Situational awareness has always been an integral part of OODA’s orient phase, allowing commanders to visualize what’s happening on the ground quickly and easily. AI provides the flexibility to track more data as a situation evolves and create context-related dashboards where and when needed.

In Finland, a software company recently appointed a robot as a board member, complete with the right to participate in key decisions. The military may not be far behind, as decision-makers consider whether robots can initiate or lead operations during the Decide phase of OODA. It’s conceivable to have some form of AI leading a ground platoon.

During OODA’s Act phase, AI could transform standard operational procedures. Because AI can be deployed handily for deception techniques, it could be a major asset in avoiding conflict altogether. Say a military detail decides to mobilize troops close to a neighboring country’s border. Even a small deployment using predictive AI could give the adversary pause, especially if mobilized quickly and efficiently.

Speed and tenacity

Because AI enables autonomous systems to undertake dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, it can help reduce risk. AI also makes reconnaissance and surveillance activities faster and more sustainable by improving capabilities across tasking, collection, processing, exploitation and dissemination.

AI is poised to become vital to defense agencies, as new mission requirements become more complex. However, one very human quality is needed to realize the full benefits of AI: trust.

If defense leaders don’t trust AI, they won’t base military strategy on AI-generated information. The real battle may be to establish trust in AI technology and to ensure AI deployments align to an agency’s mission, core values and ethical principles. The billion-dollar question for the world’s military is how.

Valtteri Vuorisalo is the industry innovation senior principal at Accenture Defence Services.