WASHINGTON –– Artificial intelligence and related digital tools can help warn of natural disasters, fight global warming and expedite humanitarian assistance, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a former national security adviser to the Trump administration.
It can also help prevent combat, highlight incoming attacks, and uncover vulnerabilities around the world, he said at the Nexus 22 Symposium on May 17.
The US must “detect aggression early to deter it,” McMaster told attendees at the day-long event, which focused on autonomy, AI and the underlying defense policies. “This applies to our inability to prevent conflict in Ukraine, but also to the need to prevent conflict in other areas such as Taiwan. And of course, we need to be able to respond quickly and maintain situational awareness, identify patterns of adversary and hostile activity and, perhaps more importantly, anticipate pattern breaks.”
Specific applications of the AI, McMaster said, include “early warning of enemy action by enemies and adversaries who have long-range missile and missile capabilities,” such as Russia or China. The ability “also applies to North Korea and Iran,” he continued. “It applies to Houthi rebels in Yemen, to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon or to Hamas in Gaza.”
The Department of Defense recognizes the importance of AI and considers it a modernization priority. The 2018 AI strategy, for example, hailed the technology as revolutionary for both national defense and economic security.
According to the legislator, allowing foreign competitors to go first entails great risks.
“We’ve seen the national report on artificial intelligence saying China is making absolutely the investments to outperform us,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican, in another speech at the event. “This will not only change our behavior in society and the economy, but certainly also in warfare. I’m very worried about that.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Pentagon‘s unclassified spending on AI and autonomy more than quadrupled in fiscal 2021 to $2.5 billion from about $600 million in fiscal 2016. The Department of Defense targeted a $130.1 billion research, development and testing fund in fiscal 2023 and announced in related documents the creation of the Chief Digital and AI Office.
As of April 2021, the Pentagon was handling at least 685 artificial intelligence projects, including a handful for large weapons systems. The full scope of the portfolio isn’t clear, as some ventures are shielded from public view and AI is often a part of larger programs.
“The exponential growth we’re seeing in data is already contributing to security, defense, economic development and a range of efforts from reducing carbon emissions to responding to natural disasters,” McMaster said. He added that harnessing the power of AI, analytics and information sharing can help “solve some of the most critical challenges we face and help us build a better future.”
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, covering networking and IT. Colin previously reported for a South Carolina newspaper on the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — specifically, nuclear weapons development and the Cold War cleanup.