(As reported National Intelligence Magazine) Special Operations Command is gung-ho about leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities across its portfolio as it faces off against peer competitors and violent extremist organizations, according to top officials.
SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Richard Clarke noted that a number of his program executive offices are keen on the technology.
“Artificial intelligence and machine learning efforts are integrated into most of our major PEO programs, and we’ll continue this,” he said May 12 during a keynote address at the virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, or vSOFIC, which is managed by the National Defense Industrial Association.
SOCOM is in a “war for influence” against its adversaries, making military information support operations, or MISO, ever more critical, he said. MISO was once known as "psychological operations."
“As we look at the ability to influence and shape in this [information] environment, we’re going to have to have artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, specifically for information ops that hit a very broad portfolio, because we’re going to have to understand how the adversary is thinking, how the population is thinking, and work in these spaces” to conduct information operations at a fast pace, he said.
“If you’re not at speed, you won’t be relevant,” Clarke added. “What we need is adapting data tech that will actually work in this space and we can use it for our organization.”
SOCOM has now stood up a joint MISO “web ops” center, he noted.
The push comes as extremist organizations such as ISIS may try to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to boost recruitment using social media.
“Extremists will capitalize on the economic situation as more people become prone to extremism,” said Jordanian King Abdullah Il bin Al-Hussein during a guest appearance. Countering those efforts through international partnerships and enhanced cyber capabilities will be critical, he noted.
SOCOM’s interest in AI and machine learning isn’t confined to information operations. Acquisition Executive Jim Smith said the command is pursuing a wide range of applications for the command’s top priorities, to include: next-generation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; next-gen mobility; precision fires and effects; biotechnology; hyper-enabled operator; and data and networks.
For next-gen ISR, sensor fusion will be critical as the command seeks to tie in information provided by unmanned aerial vehicles, cyber- and space-based capabilities, and other sensors, he noted.
“The problem is each one of those sensors takes an operator offline, so how do we use artificial intelligence and machine learning to get those sensors to interoperate autonomously and provide feedback to a single operator to enable that force to maneuver on the objective?” he asked.
For next-gen mobility, AI and machine learning could help drones and other robots navigate and perform tasks autonomously, Smith noted.
“Think of those small UAVs or your small ground vehicles and giving them enough artificial intelligence and machine learning to be able to be autonomous, so that they can clear a building or they can clear a tunnel and … freeing up your maneuver force to be much more effective and efficient,” he said.
The technology could also help special operations forces employ radio frequency countermeasures.
“Today the way we do that [is] we have a library of threat radar signatures … on board, and if you see one of those threat radars in our library we counter it,” Smith explained. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had some type of machine learning that identified anomalies in this space so it wasn’t just the threat radars we had loaded into the library that we thought we might see in that theater, but maybe it’s a new radar that we haven’t seen before or a radar that we didn’t realize was operating in that theater that we could identify?”
For its precision strike portfolio, SOCOM wants loitering munitions that can fly around until they need to be called upon to strike a target at the right time and place. It also wants counter-drone technology. AI and machine learning could be used to identify enemy drones and tip off defensive systems, Smith noted.
In the biotechnology realm, the command is working with an industry partner using AI and machine learning to study the long-term health effects on the brain of low-level blast exposure. Smith did not identify the company or provide more details about the initiative.
AI and ML also feeds into SOCOM’s “hyper-enabled operator” concept.
“What we’re talking about in this case is improving their cognitive overmatch at the edge,” Smith said. That includes the ability to analyze, synthesize and communicate information to enable warfighters to make better decisions.
Analysts at tactical operations centers are fed a lot of information, he noted. “It’s great information, but what’s happening right now is the analyst has to take that information, ‘productize’ it, gather it, think about it, put it into a format and then disseminate it,” he said. “It may get to our individual operator at the edge in a timely fashion and may be tailored to their situation, but probably not,” he added.
To mitigate the problem, SOCOM will be kicking off a new “automate the analyst” effort at the SOFWERX office in Tampa, Florida, in June, he said.
The potential for AI and ML to bolster data management and networks is obvious, he said.
“We’re committed to rolling out specific things in the near term,” Clarke said.
Clarke noted that the command is already using AI for tasks such as predictive maintenance, as well as enabling mission command on the tactical edge.
“Our forces are conducting battlefield operations every single night,” he said. “We have AI teams with them looking at those processes, recording them, pulling in the data and then fusing this physical and information environment so we can make faster decision-making going forward.”
Clarke said having personnel that understand and can use AI effectively will grow in importance.
“We still need guys that can kick down the door, that can shoot well, can jump out of airplanes, can fly our special operators (like Navy SEALS),” he said. “But we also need coders. We also need leaders who can apply AI.
“We’ve been having discussions internally that it may no longer be that the most important person on the mission is actually the special forces operator who’s kicking down the door, but it could be the cyber operator that the special operations team actually has to get to the environment and make sure that he or she can work his or her cyber tools into the fight,” he added.
Smith noted that the command has a new program executive office, PEO SOF Digital Applications, that will pursue AI software capabilities.
Across the acquisition portfolio, SOCOM wants industry to be “baking” AI and ML technology into its products, he said.
“What we’re starting to see is our industry partners coming in on proposals and … they’re baking in artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he said. “That’s exactly where we want to be.”
SOCOM is ramping up its pursuit of the technology, he said. “It’s a steep curve for us,” he said. “But we are climbing that curve, and in true SOF fashion we will continue to climb that curve very aggressively.”