Opinion

Who will lead the world in artificial intelligence?

A new report emphasizes why it is urgent that the Department of Defense and Congress work together to modernize the way defense programs and budgets develop, integrate and deploy the latest technologies in support of American national security. Released by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a federal body created to review and recommend ways to use artificial intelligence for national security purposes, the report recommends the use of AI to update America’s defense plans, predict future threats, deter adversaries and win wars.

Because AI will be “incorporated into virtually all future technology,” it is easy to recognize that national security threats and opportunities posed by AI should be a catalyst for necessary changes to defense requirements and resourcing processes. In an AI-enabled world, the Defense Department will be unable to modernize the way it recruits talent, trains the force, develops and integrates technology, and funds all of these elements without internal culture shifts and help from Congress.

“Unless the requirements, budgeting and acquisition processes are aligned to permit faster and more targeted execution, the U.S. will fail to stay ahead of potential adversaries.” This blunt recommendation to the Defense Department under the heading “Accelerate Adoption of Existing Digital Technologies” makes clear the urgency for cultural and structural updates to the way the department currently does business.

Commission members, who came principally from the academic and business communities, further noted in the report that:

  • “The sources of battlefield advantage will shift from traditional factors like force size and levels of armaments, to factors like superior data collection and assimilation, connectivity, computing power, algorithms, and system security.”
  • “Perhaps the most urgent and compelling reason to accelerate the use of AI for national security is the possibility that more advanced machine analysis could find and connect the dots before the next attack, when human analysis alone may not see the full picture as clearly.” Simply put, AI will revolutionize the practice of intelligence.
  • The life cycle project management phases used in appropriations categories that govern the defense budget run counter to the trial and error process of AI and other software-based technologies. Thus commissioners recommended that the Defense Department should “Modernize the Budget and Oversight Process for Digital Technologies.”
  • The Defense Department should commit to building budgets that invest at least 3.4 percent of the annual defense budget in science and technology and allocate at least $8 billion for research and development of “core AI.”

To be able to afford the implementation of this last recommendation, the department would have to change its acquisition and resourcing approaches to get more and faster bang for its buck. The commission recognized this by proposing a pilot program to “test mission-focused budgeting and appropriations.” Ideally this would lead to the establishment of “a single appropriation and budget structure for software and digital technologies by FY 2023.”

In comparison to China’s ability to move quickly with resourcing decisions, another new report released last week about competing in time notes that the inflexibility of the Defense Department budget process, which dates back to 1961, makes it more difficult to rapidly move money to innovations that appear promising. In a good, small step in the right direction, Congress supported the software pilot requested by Defense in its 2021 budget to begin addressing this problem.

Now is the time to harness federal buying power and leverage the potential momentum of this wide-ranging report to break the mold, and (as described in the report) come to the aid of “visionary technologists and warfighters [who] largely remain stymied by antiquated technology, cumbersome processes, and incentive structures that are designed for outdated or competing aims.”

The Defense Department can do many things for itself through the use of existing laws and rules governing how it buys things. It can also encourage and train its workforce to take risks, try new things and abandon them if they don’t work rather than wasting money to follow through on programs that will be out of date before being deployed. The department should foster a culture of a creative “what if we…” approach to problem-solving and iteratively identify how things connect and can be used differently. Integration and sustainment should not be acquisition afterthoughts.

Congress can help by alleviating some of the risks with recommended pilot programs to signal support for a more agile approach to both acquisition and oversight. Policymakers and the defense workforce should be able to balance creativity, speed, transparency and stewardship.

As the commissioners concluded, “Many countries have national AI strategies. But only the United States and China have the resources, commercial might, talent pool, and innovation ecosystem to lead the world in AI.”

Elaine McCusker, a former acting under secretary of defense (comptroller), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where Emily Coletta is a researcher.

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