By Joe Shepherd
As military technology becomes more advanced, the line between tactician and mathematician begins to blur. Coordination between global defense systems and troop movements — counterbalanced against adversarial efforts — can be broken down into mathematical formulas, equations and variables.
Until the 20th century, military organizations were constrained by the computational power of the human brain. The introduction of advanced intelligence systems has upended that calculus entirely.
While imperfect, computational assets expanded the way leading minds could gather, synthesize and act upon intelligence. This pattern laid the foundation for the modern military landscape and the proliferation of information warfare.
It is in this spirit, creating an ecosystem that consumes terabytes of data to give combatants any conceivable edge, that artificial intelligence is becoming an obvious necessity in military systems.
This is already taking place within the U.S. military. In fact, the Defense Department in June launched an AI accelerator initiative aimed at transitioning applications from the purely analytical to the tactical, improving the way warfighters approach decision-making in split-second scenarios.
This is a critical shift, as it expands AI’s role away from pureplay analysis and toward operational scenarios that would otherwise overwhelm a warfighter.
As the Defense Department explores battlefield applications for artificial intelligence, opportunities to test its synergy with other cutting edge technologies are emerging.
One technology with enormous upside for this intersection is directed energy, which includes a range of capabilities like high-energy lasers and high-powered microwaves.
As a part of the nation’s defense architecture, directed energy offers unique solutions to defeat complex threats, from hypersonic missiles to drone swarms. AI can be brought to bear as a partnering technology in a number of areas to augment a human operator’s abilities in tasks such as target acquisition, collateral damage mitigation, predictive system maintenance and battle planning.
But what makes directed energy a natural companion for AI? It’s a matter of complexity. Such weapon systems operate at the speed of light, with extremely complex variables affecting every engagement. Capitalizing on the highly precise nature of a high-energy lasers system, for example, requires factoring in variables such as moving target trajectories, environmental and atmospheric influences, and situational awareness of collateral damage to be avoided.
Only AI could achieve the level of calculation required under the time constraints of a live battlefield scenario and provide the resulting guidance to a human operator to make an informed decision, especially in a drone swarm attack scenario.
For example, consider a high-energy laser emplaced to defend a forward operating base. Its overall effectiveness to defeat a target is subject to the influence of atmospheric turbulence, aerosol content and wind speed, as any one of these can alter the efficacy of the laser beam delivered to the desired aimpoint.
In the hands of a lone operator, no amount of experience can accurately inform the exact adjustments needed to offset these variables.
However, AI integration coupled with a comprehensive weather database can provide an operator the meta-analysis needed to make task execution not only achievable, but consistent — enhancing the probability of destroying a target.
The threat of non-state actors as adversaries has greatly increased the risk of collateral damage and loss of life, calling for more precision strike capabilities but at an affordable price. These actors can easily comingle their assets and infrastructure among civilian populations, making larger-scale kinetic weaponry completely non-viable.
Another relevant scenario is the increasing threat from a drone swarm. Such an attack could easily overwhelm personnel responsible for a high-energy laser engagement of incoming platforms. With so many simultaneous targets in their field of regard, only a system augmented with AI stands a chance to accomplish its mission.
Laser systems enable highly precise and rapid engagements that can be “dialed” from non-lethal to lethal, greatly reducing the risk of collateral damage and providing a much more cost-effective weapon-target pairing. But the precision that makes directed energy so attractive for modern warfare cannot be fully achieved without the advanced computing that AI can provide.
Artificial intelligence and DE are both still relatively nascent technologies, and their full potential is still developing and maturing. In the case of AI, this is a function of its core design: for AI to be effective, it needs a massive, clean and current pool of data from which to learn and draw insights. The more the two technologies integrate, the more scenarios they can address and the more variables they can consider in the most complicated swarm or multi-target scenarios.
That’s not to suggest that the partnership of these technologies cannot deliver real-world results today. Process automation is a prime example.
In directed energy systems, numerous processes must be executed to ensure proper lethality, which are currently left to be managed by human operators. AI’s capacity for automation allows for delegation of those tasks to background processing, freeing up otherwise saturated operators to focus on human-centric engagement strategies.
By their own design, applications and strengths, AI and directed energy are destined to work in tandem. Combining the precision nature of DE weapons and the ability to leverage artificial intelligence to augment an otherwise overwhelmed operator is a perfect parallel for the reigning ethos of modern operational success. The Defense Department should prioritize the application of AI in directed energy systems experimentation and implementation to accelerate their operational relevance and adoption as a cost-effective complement to their existing arsenal of solutions against these evolving threats.
Joe Shepherd is vice president of directed energy innovation at Booz Allen Hamilton.
Topics: Emerging Technologies