Behind the Curtain: U.S. not ready for robotic, AI world wars


source: (contributed by Bill Amshey)  | image:


America’s ability to remain the world’s most lethal military hinges on two interrelated — and vexing — mysteries, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write.

  • Can soon-to-retire four-star generals truly foresee the awesome power of artificial intelligence in time to break generation-old habits and shift warfare theories?
  • If they do, can they convince the brightest coding minds to chuck lucrative gigs at Google to build AI-powered systems for America faster or better than their rivals in China?

Why it matters: Future wars will be won with Stanford nerds, faster chips, superior computing power and precision robotics on land, sea and air. Experts tell us that because of a lethal combination of congressional myopia and constipated Pentagon buying rules, America isn’t mobilizing fast enough to prevail on future battlefields.

  • “We are witnessing an unprecedented fundamental change in the character of war, and our window of opportunity to ensure that we maintain an enduring competitive advantage is closing,” retired Army Gen. Mark Milley, who then was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in a report he wrote shortly before retiring this fall.

What’s happening: Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, said at last week’s Axios AI+ Summit in Washington that with cutting-edge tech being deployed in Ukraine, a drone is no longer just an uncrewed flying object. It’s a “potent software platform” that’s a big step toward more automated war.

  • “It’s clear that drones and other weapons based on autonomy can replace tanks, artillery and mortars,” Schmidt told us in a later interview. “The success of Ukraine and also Russia on the battlefield proves this point.”
  • But experts warn the U.S. is still spending too much time and money building aircraft carriers and other outmoded artifacts of analog war, because of the archaic restraints of what the late Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain called the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus — former top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, and former CIA director, who’s author of the new bestseller “Conflict” — told us that tanks, ships and planes must be largely supplanted over time by a massive armada of much cheaper, smaller, uncrewed, algorithmically piloted systems.

  • “Humans will be on the loop rather than in the loop,” Petraeus said. “You will have a human at some point say: ‘OK, machine. You’re free to take action according to the computer program we established for you’ — rather than remotely piloting it.”

🖼️ The big picture: The answers to those two big questions are being determined now, as military experts sound the alarm about ways the tectonic shift in military power is threatening America in real time. Milley’s report, “Strategic Inflection Point,” is a 10-page wake-up call.

  • “The American homeland has almost always been a sanctuary during conflict, but this will not be the case in a future war,” Milley wrote. “Robust space and cyber capabilities allow adversaries to target critical national infrastructure.”
  • Milley is among those warning privately that too many four-star generals — typically in their mid-50s to early 60s — are too old and too connected to conventional warfare to shift fast enough, sources tell us.
  • Army Gen. Erik Kurilla — commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East — is seen as the most technologically innovative of the roughly 40 four-stars in the military today.

China — and AI — are the central focus of every future-of-defense conversation. Beijing knows technology alone can help leapfrog America, despite long being outspent by us (though the gap has mostly closed).

  • Take hypersonic missiles. They move so fast that no modern defense system can come close to shooting them down until moments before they hit. China is far ahead of the U.S. in the hypersonic arms race — a potential scary edge in a conflict over Taiwan or beyond.

Quantum technologies — which include ultra-precise sensors and more secure communications — promise to vastly improve military targeting and encryption.

  • Nimble next-gen defense startups are already vying with legacy giants. Anduril Industries — founded by Palmer Luckey, who designed the head-mounted Oculus Rift and sold the technology to Facebook — on Friday unveiled an autonomous weapons platform, Roadrunner,with a portable hangar so compact it looks like an outhouse. (YouTube)

Michèle Flournoy — former undersecretary of defense for policy, and now co-founder of WestExec Advisors — told us that while every branch of the military has an innovation hub, the risk-averse culture means these efforts “are still on the margins of the main acquisition and budget processes.”

  • “The Pentagon has gotten very good at tech-scouting and demonstrating and experimenting and prototyping,” Flournoy said. “But actually moving things into production at scale has been a challenge.”