To Win the Next War, the Pentagon Needs Nerds

When Russia invaded In Ukraine, the U.S. Department of Defense turned to a team of experts in machine learning and artificial intelligence to make sense of an avalanche of information about the conflict.

“We have advanced data scientists,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told WIRED in a recent interview. These technology experts created code algorithms and machine learning, creating systems that are “especially valuable for synthesizing the complex image of logistics,” he said.

Due to the sensitive nature of operations in Ukraine, Hicks says he cannot provide details of what the data team has done. But Hicks says this helps demonstrate a point she and others have made within the Pentagon for a long time: that technology is fundamentally changing the nature of war and that the U.S. must adapt to maintain its advantage. .

“I like to say that bits can be as important as bullets,” says Hicks, referring to the importance of software, data, and machine learning. It’s not just that technology is advancing faster and in different ways; the U.S. is also facing new international competition in emerging areas such as AI. Russia may be less of a technological threat, but China has become a formidable close rival. “We know from written Chinese government statements that they are looking to make great strides on the AI ​​front,” says Hicks.

During the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, AI algorithms have been used to transcribe and interpret Russian radio talk and to identify Russian people in videos posted on social media using facial recognition technology. Low-cost drones that use commercial algorithms to detect and navigate are also proving a powerful new weapon against more conventional systems and strategies. An unprecedented piracy campaign against Russia shows how cybersecurity skills have become a powerful weapon against a nation-state adversary. New weapons can also be developed at breakneck speed, as demonstrated earlier this month when the US said it had developed a custom drone specifically for use by Ukrainian forces. By contrast, the last U.S. Air Force fighter jet, the F-35, has been in development for more than 20 years, with an estimated cost of living of $ 1.6 trillion.

While the United States is helping Ukraine overcome its burden by providing financial assistance, conventional weapons, and new technologies, there are those inside and outside the Pentagon who are concerned that the United States is ill-equipped to meet the challenges facing the United States. war. in the future.

“All big companies have the same problem,” says Preston Dunlap, who resigned last week as chief architect of the Air Force Department, a role that involved modernizing technology development and acquisition. Dunlap compares the situation to how successful big companies can be disrupted by technological change and more agile competitors, a phenomenon that business school professor Clayton Christensen called “the innovator’s dilemma.”

Dunlap wrote an open letter of resignation in which he recommended the steps the Department of Defense should take to adopt a faster, more experimental, technology-focused culture. He says that just like a company facing technological disruption and more agile competitors, the U.S. military is struggling to change direction because it encompasses so many people, systems, and ways of doing things that are ingrained. He suggests that change advocates, like Hicks, can only do so much. “I am concerned that operators will have to enter into some kind of contingency [conflict] without the technology available, “he says.” This is not a place where I want to be. “

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