A 2017 photo of the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division at the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, which provides a common threat and targeting picture that are key to planning and executing theater wide aerospace operations to meet the Combined Forces Air Component commander’s objectives (U.S. Air Force Photo)
Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said on Dec. 7 that a crisis will likely force the Pentagon to embrace artificial intelligence (AI) and ways to involve commercial start-up innovators in scaling up AI quickly.
"I think creating a true militarized Internet across our military platforms–an Internet of Military Things–is going to put us face to face with the AI dilemma–not necessarily how to fight it on the battlefield, though that is a dilemma we need to be worried about–[but] the dilemma that we will never drive that technology within the U.S. military," Roper told an AFWERX Accelerator forum on scaling up innovation. "But I think it will be one of the first technologies the Pentagon will have to look at and say, 'We can't win without it.' That has been the urgency we have lacked. The Pentagon needs a crisis to really mobilize and change itself. I think AI will create that crisis where we say, 'We can't win without it, but we can't use it unless we change everything about how we work with commercial innovators to operationalize it on commercial terms.'"
"I'm excited that we've got a crisis coming up, and we should never waste a good crisis, as [U.S. Air Force Gen.] Hap Arnold said," according to Roper's remarks.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy posited China and Russia as the primary threats to the U.S., and Pentagon officials have said that the U.S. needs to move to field advanced technologies in AI and other fields, as China makes rapid advances.
In the last several years, the Air Force and U.S. Space Force have made significant strides in coding and working with software companies which code, as well as adopting enterprise and open-source software tools, such as containerization and Kubernetes, to field rapid iterations of new software for new ICBMs, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter and intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance programs, Roper said.
The Air Force's air and space "Internet of Military Things" is to be the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), which is itself part of Joint All-Domain Command-and Control (JADC2), an effort to build a cross-service digital architecture for multi-domain operations–in effect, a military Internet of Things with machine-to-machine interfaces. The Air Force has requested $3.3 billion for ABMS over five years, including $302.3 million in fiscal 2021.
Doug Philippone, the global defense program lead at Palantir Technologies, said that DoD needs to do sufficient market research to locate innovative companies for specific, fast fielding needs. Philippone said that Palantir spends $500 million annually on research and development.
"If you have a requirement and need an outcome, remember to do market research first and just ask, 'Can anyone else do this?' before you build it," Philippone said during the AFWERX Acclerator forum. "One thing I can guarantee is, China is not competing with its industrial base, and we have to work together."
Trae Stephens, a partner at the San Francisco-based Founders Fund venture capital firm, the chairman of Anduril Industries, and a former Palantir employee, told the AFWERX Accelerator forum that the next two years will be critical for start-up companies that have won small DoD innovation contracts, as the companies will want to see dedicated, larger investments from the Pentagon to sustain their efforts.
Founders Fund was the first institutional investor in SpaceX and Palantir and one of the earliest investors in Facebook.
“The DoD has had a lot of different business models over its history,” Stephens said. “We shouldn’t forget that the U.S. government was making its own firearms until 1968 when we closed Springfield Armory. There was a point when we said it’s no longer budgetarily/economically viable for the taxpayer to front this money for the U.S. government to own the construction of firearms. Since 1968, they’ve outsourced that entirely to private industry. And I think that we have this kind of trap of thinking of software as this particularly egalitarian thing where we say, ‘Software is software. Anybody can build software. It’s just bodies who have degrees in seats.’”
“I’m sitting here in San Francisco, but I probably hate San Francisco more than anyone,” he said. “I know Silicon Valley is almost a bad word in Washington, D.C., and that’s okay. There are a lot of really crummy people here that are working at odds with the DoD. There are also a lot of really good people here, and a lot of good people in the tech community who want to do the right thing for the country. As with any other profession or skill set, talent is a normal curve, a normal distribution. As the taxpayer and as the DoD, we should want to be on the far right side of that talent distribution. We want the best possible people working on these things. It’s pretty different to be an app developer than it is to be a complex enterprise software company working on artificial intelligence applied applications and things like that.”
Palantir CEO and co-founder Alex Karp and co-founder Peter Thiel, who is also a partner and co-founder of Founders Fund, have made similar, negative comments about Silicon Valley, and Thiel has criticized Google for what he said were sales of sensitive technology to China. In 2018, Google dropped out of the classified Project Maven drone imagery processing project because of employee objections—a contract Palantir Technologies has taken over, at least in part, according to published reports.
Stephens said that strong recruiting is needed to getting software talent to build U.S. military systems.
“We need to get to the point where we’re having that 1968 Springfield Armory moment,” Stephens said. “If we’re going to be software first, we have to have access to the best people. Unfortunately, the best people in this specific field are optimizing ads at Instagram, Google, and Facebook. That pool of talent needs to be reached in a way that it hasn’t been reached in the last 30 years.”
The Air Force planned to integrate Project Maven into an ABMS "onramp" exercise on Aug. 31-Sept. 3, but the Air Force has not provided an evaluation of that integration or Project Maven's performance.
Cloud One/Platform One were to be a hosting environment for Project Maven to transform it from a developmental system into a warfighting system for the onramp.
Kicked off in 2017 with the oversight of the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Project Maven has looked to develop an AI tool to process data from full-motion video collected by unmanned aircraft and decrease the workload of intelligence analysts.