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News   Defense News

Digital Transformation, AI Important in Keeping Battlefield Edge, Leaders Say

June 9, 2022 | BY Dave Vergun , DOD News

Defense Department officials discussed the importance of digital transformation and artificial intelligence in enabling warfighters to maintain a battlefield advantage, even as China and Russia develop their own AI for military purposes.  

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John B. Sherman, DOD's chief information officer, held a fireside chat June 8 with Craig Martell, DOD's chief digital and artificial intelligence officer, at the DOD Digital and AI Symposium.   

Sherman congratulated Martell on his appointment to this new leadership position. He brings a valuable industry perspective to the team, Sherman said, noting that Martell has only been on the job for three days and is hitting the ground running.  

The chief of digital and artificial intelligence, which uses the acronym CDAO, reached Full Operating Capability June 1 and is charged with leading and overseeing DOD's strategy development and policy formulation for data, analytics and AI; breaking down barriers to data and AI adoption within appropriate DOD institutional processes; and creating enabling digital infrastructure and services that support Components' development and deployment of data, analytics, AI and digital-enabled solutions. 

Sherman noted that the CDAO has his hands full of real-world operational requirements, including such diverse things as the war in Ukraine, business analytics, counter unmanned aerial systems and data governance.  

Soldier works on an unmanned aerial vehicle.
UAV Maintenance
Army Staff Sgt. Elise Denning, with the Artificial Intelligence Integration Center, conducts maintenance on an unmanned aerial system in preparation for Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Oct. 20, 2021. During the testing, Soldiers are experimenting with ways to use UAS to do autonomous target sensing and artificial intelligence, helping soldiers see on the battlefield.
Photo By: Army Spc. Kayla Anstey
VIRIN: 211020-O-JT723-969C

Martell said he will focus not only on the fight today but also future fights five or 10 years later.  

"We need to find the gaps, the right places where we can leverage value, and then that value is going to drive a virtuous cycle of change," Martell said. "A lot of folks think that DOD should be more like industry. Some of that is true. But [there are] a lot of things about the DOD that can't be more like industry. … We need to find out how to keep the DOD but also make it more efficient and work better." 

Sherman mentioned that his and Martell's work involves a lot of coordination and communications with the military services, the Defense Information Systems Agency and combatant commanders regarding everything they do, such as the Artificial Intelligence and Data Accelerator and digital services. They are the ultimate customers.  

The team, Sherman continued, constantly thinks about what sort of AI and machine learning capabilities would help them get ahead of specific problem sets, which will vary from combatant command to combatant command.  

For instance, U.S. Southern Command might be focused on transnational criminal organizations, while U.S. European Command might be focusing on threats from Russia and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on threats from China, he said.  

An unmanned surface vehicle operates in a body of water.
Saildrone Explorer
A Saildrone Explorer unmanned surface vessel is being towed out to sea in the Arabian Gulf off Bahrain’s coast, Jan. 27, 2022. U.S. Naval Forces Central Command began operationally testing the USV as part of an initiative to integrate new unmanned systems and artificial intelligence into U.S. 5th Fleet operations.
Photo By: Spc. Natianna Strachen, Army
VIRIN: 220127-A-RM286-2035A

Sherman also mentioned cybersecurity as it relates to securing data and algorithms.  

"We talk a lot about zero trust," he said. "That assumes an adversary is already on our network. How do we micro-segment our network so as to prevent that adversary from moving laterally? And, we're going to leverage AI to help us get even better as we employ zero trust."  

Sherman also said that AI will be important in satellite communications as well as command and control.  

Martell said leveraging the relationship with industry is important. "It doesn't make any sense for us to build things that we shouldn't be building here if industry already has a solution."  

Also, Martell mentioned that startups and innovative small industries should be sought out by DOD for their creative solutions.  

Sherman said he agreed and added that DOD needs to work with small and medium industries to help them bolster their cybersecurity needs.   

Clouds shown within a grid.
Cloudy Grid
Researchers in the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of Applied Mathematics are supporting an ambitious research effort to apply new approaches in high-fidelity computer modeling, including machine learning, that will take advantage of future computing capabilities and realize the potential for significant improvements in the accuracy of hurricane prediction.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 220427-N-D0439-0002D

Both men said that acquiring and retaining talent in the workforce must be a priority and that the hiring practice needs to be tweaked so that people in industry can do a stint in DOD, go back to industry with more tools in their toolkit and maybe eventually return to DOD in a revolving door sort of scenario.  

Also, they both mentioned upskilling in DOD, which means getting meaningful work in the department so that when these professionals return to industry, they will have new and marketable skills that are desirable and cutting edge.  

Martell noted that he took a pay cut coming into his current position. While the government usually cannot pay as much as the private sector, he said the intangible benefit that attracts him and others, is DOD's mission and service to country.