Pentagon wants to make AI acceleration initiative a long-term institution

Pentagon wants to make AI acceleration initiative a long-term institution
Pentagon wants to make AI acceleration initiative a long-term institution

TAMPA, Fla. – Three years after launching an initiative to help combatant commands adopt artificial intelligence tools and concepts, the Pentagon is developing a long-term vision for the program.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the AI ​​and Data Acceleration initiative in May 2021, just months after taking office. The goal was to use experiments and exercises to help combatant commands apply digital tools to operational concepts such as joint command and control across all domains and other key functions, including maintenance and logistics.

As part of this effort, the department has deployed teams of data scientists, engineers and programmers in each of the 11 combatant commands. These experts have been tasked with assessing each command’s digital readiness and providing feedback on where the Department of Defense should invest to accelerate progress.

Radha Plumb, the Pentagon’s top digital and AI official, told C4ISRNET during a recent visit to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, that the teams have been “hugely successful” – so much so that Defense Department leadership wants to find the right model to make them a more permanent facility.

“That capability in the COCOMs with connectivity back to Pentagon headquarters and (the Office of the Secretary of Defense) is really valuable for many reasons – it highlights data blockers and identifies where there are priority needs that we need to accelerate or invest in at the central level,” she said. “Now we’re working on a long-term model.”

Initial funding for the ADA ends this fiscal year. The Pentagon plans to extend it through 2029 while it determines what a longer-term model might look like. The department requested $14 million for the program in its 2025 budget.

Plumb said she is in the early stages of developing that plan. One of her reasons for traveling to CENTCOM was to meet the ADA team, get a feel for how they are organized within the command and hear about their successes and needs.

That includes understanding how ADA teams fit into a command’s organizational structure, their size and how they are deployed. Those three areas, she said, will help the department decide how to manage and fund the ADA centers – whether through a centralized data team within CDAO, as is the case today, or through another model.

Scaling tools

CENTCOM’s team is well integrated into the command, Plumb said. Since ADA began, they have completed their readiness assessment and worked with the innovation office and operators to develop several AI and data tools.

“They’re developing tools that they can experiment with and get operational,” she said. “And then if they want to develop them further and scale them, we at CDAO can find ways to do that.”

If the tools are adapted from commercial products, that could mean finding resources to expand their use, she said. For government tools, the CDAO could help grant the necessary approvals to scale them more widely.

Plumb’s office recently announced a new approach to scaling AI and analytics tools across the department that could make this process easier for ADA teams. The Open Data and Applications Government-owned Interoperable Repositories (Open DAGIR) construct is designed to help the Department of Defense and industry bring together data platforms, development tools, and applications.

The effort will focus on three types of capabilities: mature applications that will be licensed for enterprise use, experimental apps that address urgent needs but require funding to develop quickly, and applications that are being developed under a combatant command.

While Open DAGIR is intended to pave a way to make digital tools available to a wider public, Plumb said she has heard from ADA teams that data access is a significant obstacle.

One reason is the Department of Defense’s own difficulties in automating and centralizing data. If ADA teams can identify where those bottlenecks are and why that data is needed, Plumb and her office can better decide where to focus their efforts and allocate more resources.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “The demand signal they’re generating, while it can be frustrating for them, gives us the signal and confidence we need to make those backend improvements.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has covered some of the Department of Defense’s most significant procurement, budget and policy challenges.

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