An AI MVP in the DoD

When it comes to AI for warfighters, the DoD has a new MVP.

In late February, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the delivery of the minimum viable capability for CJADC2, which uses AI to enhance decisionmaking across the U.S. military and international allies.

This came six months after Hicks challenged the DoD’s Chief Data and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO) to deliver an initial version of the capability, and move at a “blisteringly-fast pace.”

“That's the beauty of what software can do for hard power. Delivery doesn't take years or a decade,” Hicks said at the CDAO-organized Advantage DOD 2024: Defense Data & AI Symposium.” Our investments in data, AI, and compute are empowering warfighters today.”

The speedy delivery is a tangible sign of a groundswell inside the Pentagon to adopt software development practices perfected in the private sector. Moving quickly is also an “imperative” for national security, as the U.S. seeks to counter China, Hicks said.

While Hicks stressed that the U.S. does not seek to enter an “AI arms race,” it wants to apply the foundational technology to gain an advantage in the battlespace.

“In deterring and defending against aggression, AI-enabled systems can greatly improve the speed, quality, and accuracy of commanders' decisions — which can be decisive in deterring a fight, and winning a fight,” Hicks said.

What is CJADC2?

Short for Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control, CJADC2 “isn't a platform, or a single system,” Hicks said, but rather a “fusion of concepts, technologies, policies, tools, and talent that's advancing how we command and control forces with key allies and partners.”

The theme across it all is uniting digital systems. CJADC2 brings together software applications, integrates data, connects networks, and applies new operational concepts. It also works across domains, including land, air, sea, space and cyberspace.

Past reports have described CJADC2 as an effort to bring together sensors, shooters, and data streams in order to improve information sharing, and set the stage to apply analytics and AI techniques that will help to sharpen decisionmaking. The capability grew out of Global Information Dominance Experiments (GIDE) that were launched last year by DoD in part to understand how the U.S. military can apply AI.

DoD officials did not disclose where exactly CJADC2 is being used and what is being used for, but Hicks said it is “real and ready now. It is low latency and extremely reliable.”

Why Does This Announcement Matter?

Any tech founder can tell you that shipping an MVP is not usually cause for a press release. And, in this case, the enterprise in question is unveiling technology that it can’t say much about. But in a DoD eager to signal that it is embracing innovation, shipping product that is not yet complete offers a chance to show that it is embracing the development cycles of modern software development operations. It also presents a chance to communicate inside and out. The DoD used the moment to show China that it is moving ahead, and tell American policymakers that they have more to do before the unfinished effort is complete.

On the latter front, Hicks highlighted strides that have been made on data and AI with landmark moves such as the creation of CDAO in 2021. But there's still a lot to do to change the operating environment in DoD. She underscored three hurdles that are necessary to overcome:

Funding: Congress has yet to pass a 2024 budget that contains permanent appropriations for a range of government programs, including R&D and other innovation initiatives. This leaves CDAO efforts “dead in the water,” Hicks said, relaying what a DoD official told her recently. The DoD budget specifically requested $1.4 billion for CJADC2, so it is a singular example of a fast-moving, department-wide effort that stands to be slowed down by funding delays. Last week, the Air Force’s lead on implementation told Breaking Defense that the budget contains funds to scale CJADC2, indicating that the continued impasse on Capitol Hill could stymie expansion beyond the MVP stage.

Culture: Hicks said that DoD is “hamstrung” by an internal culture with processes stuck in the 1960s. “We face an accumulation of challenges and barriers, and there is no silver bullet that will lower them all,” Hicks said. CDAO’s establishment is among a number of initiatives to bring change, along with applying a DevSecOps mindset in order to make AI “better, more secure, faster, and smarter — and safe, too.”

Talent: To keep advancing, DoD needs the best minds working on the hard problems it faces. Hicks said the DoD has developed tech talent in-house, and attracted mission-minded professionals from the private sector. But it was clear that she felt the DoD needed to keep pushing on this front to remake not just the capabilities it delivers, but how it recruits and retains the people who run what she called the “world’s largest enterprise.”

“Pay matters. Workforce culture matters. Team-building matters. How we treat people matters. Training, professional development, time with family — it matters. Having tools and IT you can use to do your work without tearing your hair out really matters,” she said, to knowing laughter.

To bring change, people must come together just as much as technology.

Stephen Babcock

Stephen Babcock is the Head of Media at Squadra Ventures. Stephen works to grow the Squadra brand through content, PR and events. Working closely with the Squadra team and portfolio companies, he tells stories, builds audience and makes the creative a driver of value. Stephen has built new media products across B2B and general interest news. He built, launched and served as editor of The Current, a B2B media platform for ecommerce professionals, and supported the marketing and brand activities of parent company Incremental, a retail media attribution and measurement platform. Over a 15-year career as a journalist across print and digital, he worked as an editor with outlets such as the tech news network Technical.ly, and a reporter with publications such as The New York Times, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, The Rio Grande Sun and The Patriot-Ledger.

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