Two decades into the 21st century, far too much of the U.S. military consists of systems that were designed and initially produced at the end of the last century, and in many cases back to the late Cold War. While the United States and its allies face growing threats from China and Russia, much of the U.S. military force structure has been worn out by the relentless pace of global operations over the past two decades.
As one example, the size of the U.S. Air Force’s combat aircraft inventory is at an all-time low, while the age of key elements of the combat aircraft fleet is at an all-time high. An urgent need exists to upgrade U.S. military capabilities, that can no longer be addressed solely by modernizing existing platforms. At the same time, the massive price tag associated with the response to COVID-19, along with the pandemic’s lingering impact on the U.S. economy, threatens to blow a hole in any future stability for the defense budget.
As the two-year-old Joint Artificial Intelligence Center shifts from a projects-and-products shop to the Pentagon’s hub for AI services and support, its leaders are working on priorities for “JAIC 2.0.” We suggest the center focus on six main efforts.
In the fall of 2020, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden signed a ground-breaking defense agreement: the International Cooperative Engagement Program for Polar Research. ICE-PPR is the first multilateral effort specifically focused on cooperation in high-latitude, cold weather locations across the globe and is a direct response to the rise of great power competition in polar regions.
ICE-PPR enables the full spectrum of research, development, testing, evaluation, experimentation, acquisition, fielding, and personnel exchange. Most importantly, if the United States takes full advantage of the agreement, it lays the groundwork to address long-standing capability gaps in critical areas.
On October 6 2020, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper debuted Battle Force 2045. As foundational elements of U.S. naval force design, Secretary Esper emphasized the importance of very long-range precision fires in volume, while also ensuring naval forces continue to operate at the forward edge of American interests. The U.S. Navy has an opportunity to immediately use existing ship types that are currently fielded in large numbers as manned auxiliary-strike platforms, while leveraging ongoing investments and technology maturation in the commercial shipping world for future unmanned naval platforms. The Navy can become a fast-follower, leveraging these investments and technology developments to rapidly field a future autonomous auxiliary-strike platform as a key part of a future unmanned naval force structure.
Over the last decade, stability in the South China Sea (SCS) has progressively deteriorated because of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actions. China’s leadership has followed a long-term, multi-pronged strategy. On the military front they have constructed a “Great Wall of Sand”1 through island building, deployed an underwater “Great Wall of Sensors;”2 and completed detailed planning and preparations to establish air defense identification zones3(ADIZ) in the SCS. Despite assurances from the highest levels of the CCP leadership, they have militarized islands in the SCS,4 deployed bombers to the Paracels5 and built up military forces in the region.6 Diplomatically, the CCP has ignored international legal rulings, continued to assert sovereignty over disputed territories,7 and sought to dissuade, protest, and prevent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).8 On the commercial front, the CCP has encouraged its large fishing fleet to overfish within other states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs).9 When confronted, they have often harassed local fisherman and even purposely collided with them, leading to sinking vessels.10
The recent DARPA AlphaDogfight Trials (ADT) were an impressive display of both technology and competition in support of advancing American airpower. As part of a broader DARPA technology and experimentation effort called Air Combat Evolution (ACE), in just over a year, the ADT has pushed the state-of-the-art for the use of agent-based modeling and artificial intelligence () applications to air warfare. Much of the initial reporting and commentary about ADT focused on the unambiguous final result when AI defeated the human pilot in each of their five dogfights. Here, as in the past, when such a decisive result occurs, some herald it as the end of an era and the dawn of a new one, like the shift from cavalry to tanks. Conversely, skeptics highlight the unrealistic conditions that applied to the test, such as the fact that the ADT used “perfect” data during the scenario conditions, a fact that any experienced pilot or controller would identify as unrealistic. In the ADT, this meant that a kill was adjudicated by reaction time in close quarters, which gives a significant inherent advantage to the AI These artificialities aside, DARPA appropriately chose a technically challenging but simplified tactical problem for this cutting-edge experimentation in air warfare. What then should we learn from the experiment?