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United States Special Operations Forces Artificial Intelligence Transformation

At the U.S. Special Operations Command’s March 28, 2019, change of command in Tampa, Acting Secretary of Defense the Honorable Patrick Shanahan highlighted that outgoing USSOCOM commander Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas drove relentless innovation across special operations forces and showed leadership in the Department of Defense (DOD) in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).  In his final remarks as the USSOCOM commander, Gen. Thomas described himself as an applied AI/ML zealot and that he remains passionate about the opportunity and necessity of leveraging AI and ML in every facet of not just U.S. SOF but the entire United States security establishment. Moments later, incoming commander Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, in his first words as the USSOCOM commander, stressed the importance of AI/ML in SOF’s future and his intent to recognize the opportunity of AI/ML-based technologies to improve the efficiency, speed, and precision of U.S. SOF.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy foresees that ongoing advances in AI will change society and, ultimately, the character of war. The NDS also states the DOD must anticipate the implications of new technologies on the battlefield, rigorously define the military problems anticipated in future conflicts, and foster a culture of experimentation and calculated risk-taking. For USSOCOM to realize this vision, the command is required to identify appropriate uses for AI across the SOF enterprise, rapidly pilot solutions, and scale successes.

As USSOCOM’s first generation chief data officer, I am charged with focusing SOF’s applied AI efforts in close partnership with the USSOCOM acquisition executive and the command’s chief information officer. Modeling industry’s best practices, the USSOCOM commander decided to have USSOCOM’s lead for AI report directly to him in order to provide command emphasis on early transformation initiatives.

USSOCOM will leverage our SOF components and the services to establish focused AI initiatives, supported by DOD and USSOCOM enterprise enablers, intended to move from idea to deployment in a rapid manner. The six areas of initial focus for the application of AI will be:

  • Perception/Action
  • Maneuver
  • Communication resilience and cyber protection
  • Training and talent management
  • Predictive maintenance, logistics planning, and forecasting
  • Vendor, contract, and budget management

The NDS states that the United States faces an ever more lethal and disruptive battlefield across all domains and conducted at increasing speed and reach throughout all of the overseas theaters reaching to our homeland.

Amir Husain, author of The Sentient Machine , speaks about artificial intelligence at USSOCOM Headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, Jan. 25, 2019. Husain’s speech was part of the USSOCOM Commander’s Speaker Series designed to inform and engage senior special operations forces leaders

Amir Husain, author of “The Sentient Machine,” speaks about artificial intelligence at USSOCOM headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Jan. 25, 2019. Husain’s speech was part of the USSOCOM Commander’s Speaker Series designed to inform and engage senior special operations forces leaders. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo)

The creative application of AI in the SOF formation will increase the capacity of SOF professionals from the tactical edge to strategic headquarters to confront the challenges of this more lethal and disruptive battlefield. It will also allow us to enable our partners with more precision and speed than ever before, but USSOCOM Headquarters cannot go it alone.

To get where we need to be, USSOCOM Headquarters is working by, through, and with the SOF enterprise and has now initiated projects in each of its focus areas. These projects include expanding support to Project Maven; demonstrating the potential of automating the identification of threat messages by the new Joint Military Information Support Operations Web Operations Center; leveraging artificial reality and virtual reality to begin engineering data for future autonomy projects with Naval Special Warfare Command; human performance and preservation of the force and family with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command; and maturing its gains in predictive maintenance through the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and applying relevant portions to the Air Force Special Operations Command’s fleet.

Empowered by the recently released Executive Order on Artificial Intelligence, USSOCOM developed its AI Strategy by embracing the DOD AI Strategy as laid out by the Director of DOD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, and by connecting the strategy to SOF modernization priorities, which are aligned with the NDS. The SOF AI Strategy at its core embraces joint staff and Office of the Secretary of Defense enablers for the enterprise. For SOF to be successful, we must have sustained support from the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (aka, Project Maven), the DOD Chief Data Officer, and the future enterprise cloud capability from the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure program.  

Most importantly, SOF’s first AI Strategy reinforces USSOCOM leadership’s intent to be the force of choice for the employment of algorithmic-based technologies through SOF headquarters to the distant edge of the formation via cloud-empowered data and services.


This interview originally appears in Special Operations Outlook 2019.

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