Dec 16, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

AI helps the Pentagon sharpen its supply-line game

Illustration of soldiers on Iwo Jima lifting up a giant cursor.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Nearly 40 years after the movie "WarGames," the Pentagon still relies on manual simulation to plan for some of its most important wartime logistics. One startup — with the backing of a retired general and former defense secretary — is trying to change that.

Why it matters: As the conflict in Ukraine has shown, the mundane business of refueling machines and resupplying troops is more important than ever in waging war.

What they're saying: "It’s not sexy, it’s not flashy, [but] it's what wins wars," former defense secretary Mark Esper told Axios.

Esper is an advisor to Defcon AI, which is developing an artificial intelligence system that the Air Force can use to simulate various aspects of military logistics. The system allows those taking part in war exercises to quickly see the downstream effects of logistics changes.

  • The Air Force, which announced plans to try out the technology earlier this year, is moving forward with a $5 million contract to move into production, Defcon AI tells Axios.
  • The startup has until Dec. 2023 to deliver its system, though it's aiming to have a prototype ready by this spring and has already provided a workign demo ahead of an April deadline.

Defcon AI is still a small effort, with about two dozen people doing everything from advising on strategy to writing the code. It's part of a broader incubator, Red Cell Partners, which is launching efforts in both the defense and health care arenas.

  • Uniting the defense and health care work is the need to be able to extract key insights from very noisy data sets, says retired Gen. Paul Selva, Defcon AI's co-founder and chief strategy officer.

The big picture: While some elements of war gaming have long been aided by computer simulation, other efforts are intensely manual. That's simply not fast enough for the speed of conflicts today.

  • "The current and emerging world situation requires us to ‘accelerate or lose’," Air Force Col. Bradley Rueter, who works on bringing emerging tech to Air Force logistics, said in a statement.
  • Defcon AI is one of a number of startups and loose coalitions of former military service leaders who are trying to help the Pentagon make better use of commercial technology.
  • The Defense Department also has similar programs, such as the Defense Innovation Unit, but its outgoing leader told Axios that plenty of structural and cultural barriers remain. ""We're still in a large sense buying things the same way we did 50 or 60 years ago," Michael Brown said in an August interview.

Between the lines: While his company is focused on ways the military can incorporate AI into its planning process, Selva cautions against seeing the technology as a panacea. "AI isn’t the answer," Selva said. "It is a tool we can use for some specific things."

  • Military use also requires AI systems that can explain the decisions they are making, Selva said, adding, "Planners don’t like black boxes."
  • Selva is keen to assuage military concerns that he is trying to replace human experience with computers. "I don’t want to take you out of the equation," he says he tells those inside the military. "I want to give you better insight."
  • That said, Selva hopes that Defcon AI's work with the Air Force could expand. "The potential it could move laterally through the department is interesting," Selva said.

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