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AI Helps USNORTHCOM Mission With Rapid Distribution of Data

Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck said intelligent automation better protects the homeland by promptly disseminating raw data throughout the world.

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image of U.S. Northern Command Commander U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck speaks during a press briefing about the completed global information dominance experiment (GIDE) 3, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., July 28, 2021.
U.S. Northern Command Commander U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck speaks during a press briefing about the completed global information dominance experiment (GIDE) 3, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., July 28, 2021. Photo Credit: Defense Department/DVIDS

United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) is on a fast track to distributing more data to key decision-makers and commanders at a faster rate worldwide thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

The Pathfinder Program allows USNORTHCOM to take AI and ML capabilities and quickly spread data around the globe to gain time and space advantages while defending against cruise missiles.

According to Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander at USNORTHCOM and North American Aerospace Defense Command, USNORTHCOM previously only filtered 2% of available data that collected from radar systems across Canada and Alaska.

Now Pathfinder is taking 100% of the raw data, diffusing it for multiple sources and allowing it to be processed and disseminated for key decision-makers in theater.

“But that’s not good enough because that’s just focused on one problem set,” VanHerck said during a recent Defense Writer’s Group event. “What I’m focusing on is a global look across all domains, infusing data, which we’re doing through our global information dominance experiment, which has demonstrated that those capabilities exist.”

“If you share the data to utilize machines that can count numbers, tell you when there are changes in vehicles in a command post, where the vehicles are going and then it can attach sensors and give you an alert that you should go look at this location,” he added. “What we’re doing is we’re not creating new data, we’re taking machines that can take existing data and analyze it quicker and alert you to it so you can create deterrents if you need to.”

DOD launched its AI and Data Acceleration (ADA) initiative in June 2021 to better curate and manage data. VanHerck believes the department isn’t moving fast enough on programs like ADA and added that you can’t apply industrial-based processes to software-driven capabilities in today’s environment. DOD needs to move faster on ADA to provide data to senior leaders at the speed of relevancy, he said.

“We’re ready to field some of these capabilities specifically when you’re focused at the operational to strategic level where what we’re trying to do is give increased decision space to our nation’s most senior leaders to develop defense options that in my mind lower the risk of an attack on our homeland,” VanHerck said.

The general also discussed how AI and ML could help with cruise missile defense by deciphering sensor data and communicating the insights quickly to key decision-makers in theater.

“We need to take the sensors we have today and potential new sensors and share that data and information and utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning to make that data and information available sooner than we have in the past and get it to decision-makers in a timely manner so they can create deterrence,” he said.

This would create deterrent options before a bomber takes off or a submarine launch.

“Before those assets ever launch, you can use the information environment to pick up the phone and publicly message and move troops into a deterred position so that they will have cause to even launch those platforms in the first place,” VanHerck said. “It would be fusing data and sensors to cue you to the potential launch of the cruise missile that may launch a thousand miles off the coast on a certain area. Then a space sensor sees that information and then cues additional sensors to provide domain awareness to decision makers.”

Cyber threats also continue to be a top priority for USNORTHCOM after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. VanHerck said the U.S. faces cyber threats every day as state and non-state actors plant malware in critical infrastructure systems.

“We’re postured to get after that threat, and I expect that it won’t go away, but will only grow as we move forward. It’s an educational challenge to make sure that cyber hygiene is as good as it can be and to understand the threat and vulnerabilities that we actually have,” VanHerck said.

Since the Russian invasion, USNORTHCOM has collaborated with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to analyze suspicious cyber activity.

“Attribution is a challenge in the cyber domain, making certain that we’re ready before an attack and that we have proper attribution so we don’t inadvertently escalate and create attention and friction we don’t want to see,” VanHerck said.

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