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DOD Makes Moves in ‘Holistic’ Approach to AI

A new Chief Digital and AI Officer will streamline and build upon AI efforts across DOD like those in the Air Force.

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DOD Makes Moves in 'Holistic' Approach to AI
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Joshua Garcia/DVIDS

Artificial intelligence (AI) helped the Air Force automate scheduling for the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft and improve scheduling accuracy rates by 92% last year, according to Air Force Chief Data Officer Eileen Vidrine.

This is just one example of successes and use cases the Air Force has had as it develops data management strategies that inch the Defense Department as a whole closer to artificial intelligence capacities and closer to its target Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative.

DOD’s efforts in AI has only grown in recent years, including establishing its Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) in 2018. Coupled with recent announcements, the department is gearing up for further changes to its AI landscape.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) said Wednesday it is establishing a new Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer (CDAO) role to streamline AI efforts throughout DOD. With this move effective Feb. 1, 2022, the DOD CDO, the Defense Digital Service (DDS) and JAIC, which all currently report to a different deputy secretary, will all then report to the new role.

The goal of this new office will be to organize a consistent, department-wide approach to implementing AI, according to a senior defense official.

“Over the last few years, the department has made a large number of strides in trying to apply data, AI and digital solutions,” the senior defense official told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “This organizational construct is actually consistent with industry best practices and market research.  And our hope and the intent of the organizational construct is to create a shared-services model to reduce administrative burden. The goal is really to … retain some decision advantage relative to our pacing challenge with China. The secretary himself is very indexed on this and has a JADC2 plan that’s really focused on integrating all sources of information to create decisive warfighter advantage.”

Vidrine, who was just named “CDO of the Year” by CDO Club, the world’s largest community of C-suite data leaders, said the Air Force’s data management and deployment of AI helps make DOD’s vision of JADC2 a reality.

“Our contribution [to JADC2] is advanced battle management systems,” she said during GovernmentCIO Media & Research’s AI Gov: Mastering Data event Wednesday. “These battle management systems will be AI-enabled. AI is one of our four foundational concepts. It’s also about making sure our data platforms are interoperable and secure. We are working across CDOs to make sure our data is available, accurate and actionable moving forward. It’s critical that it doesn’t just work for our department in the Air Force and Space Force, but it also works with our other military departments and beyond.”

AI can provide insight to federal data leaders “at the speed of relevancy,” Vidrine said. Its Guardian initiative, which the Air Force launched last year, analyzes spending data and helps the department see how spending decisions “scale out over the programmatic cycle.”

Many of its AI-focused initiatives, such as the Guardian initiative, start in academia or in an innovation lab in response to feedback from airmen. It partners with the Air Force Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide courses and graduate certificates in data science and AI. Vidrine wants the Air Force to prioritize listening to airmen and their challenges and empowering them to find creative, data-driven solutions to problems. Academic partnerships can facilitate this.

“It is also giving us that operator perspective, that warfighter perspective in identifying some of the biggest challenges, so that we can really think holistically as an enterprise to move forward,” she said.

Going forward, Vidrine said one of the Air Force’s biggest challenges will be “starting small and scaling,” but if they can do that, they’ll do well. Vidrine envisions an Air Force that relies on self-service data platforms where airmen can “bring their own tools” and innovate and solve problems on a rolling basis.

“I think that is part of the journey, is really making sure that we are listing to our airmen, having them part of our solution moving forward, that they really have a voice, that they are helping us to drive and accelerate change across our two services, both air and space today,” Vidrine said. “I think that is what I am most excited about, that engagement and collaboration. It is operational, it is real, and it is going to continue.”

DOD’s new CDAO will complement and encourage Vidrine’s efforts in addition to similar AI initiatives in the other service branches and DOD components.

“These types of technology in innovation areas of focus are not new, so there’s obviously been a ton for over a decade trying to sort of march the department forward with innovation initiatives, things that were enacted within the third offset,” the senior defense official told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “The CDO, DDS and JAIC are each going to report up to the CDAO and create a tech stack that lets us integrate data, software and AI. The goal there is to optimize their value and try to consider them more holistically. It’ll also let us leverage our digital talent better. That means eliminating some bureaucracy on the back end management, onboarding and talent management to drive greater digital and AI data expertise across the department and through the organization.”

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