As DOD selects its AI use cases, adopting the IC’s trusted tools is key for speed

Global security is constantly changing and existing AI tools can give America’s warfighters faster recognition and decision advantage.

Below is the full opinion piece by General (Ret.) Stephen J. Townsend, Former U.S. AFRICOM Commander and Advisor to Primer, as featured in C4ISRnet on February 2, 2024.

General Townsend highlights escalating global security challenges and stresses the pressing need for adopting AI in defense. He believes AI can provide context, awareness, and early warning, enhancing the Department of Defense’s recognition, understanding, and decision-making. To accelerate AI adoption, he suggests deploying pre-cleared, trusted tools already in use by the Intelligence Community and Special Operations Forces. Doing so would deliver the awareness and decision advantages our troops and leaders need far faster.

His profound insights resonate with our fundamental belief that defense capabilities demand AI-enabled speed, power, and accuracy for a sustained advantage. We express our gratitude to General Townsend for his invaluable perspective and guidance, and are grateful to draw upon his wisdom here at Primer.


Intel community tools can speed AI adoption
By Stephen J. Townsend

Hamas’ heinous attack against Israel. Houthi missile, drone and maritime attacks on Red Sea shipping. Militant drones striking US troops in Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. CCP brinkmanship in the South China Sea.

While the pace of geo-strategic surprise seemed to quicken last year, the reality is this trend intensified well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. For example, in Africa, where I led US military forces from 2019 to 2022, we responded from a back foot to no less than seven coups, attempted coups or unconstitutional changes of government in less than 24 months.

Our lack of recognition and understanding in the run-up to these coups was especially concerning when they sparked violence, as they often did, near U.S. diplomatic and troop locations.

Whether confronting global or regional competitors or resurgent terror, America and our allies must speed adoption of critical technologies for enhanced awareness – like Artificial Intelligence – to surge deterrence when indicators spike and deliver battlefield dominance should crisis come.

Responding to the rush of world events as well as directives within the 2024 NDAA, the Defense Department is rightly deciding where, how, and when to use AI. As it does, senior leaders should look to the Intelligence Community and US special operations forces to identify the trusted commercial AI tools already available for their use. Doing so can save time and more quickly bring the power of AI to more of America’s warfighters.

A recent report by U.K. and U.S. think tanks RUSI and SCSP articulated that “a certain ruthlessness” in realizing a vision is necessary for defense leaders to transform fast enough to meet the demands of the AI age.

This is key, because from the Sahel to Gaza, from Europe to the Indo-Pacific, deteriorating security conditions demand faster adoption of AI if we want to scale our ability to recognize, understand, and decide at the speed of relevance. If DOD does not lead in this area, the consequences will likely be all too grave in the future.

What Hamas told us

Superior intelligence alone does not deliver security; decision makers need intelligence to recognize and understand, but also the ability to decide and act faster than adversaries.

The world witnessed this on Oct 7 last year: Emerging information suggests intelligence didn’t miss all the indicators; but, for reasons yet to be determined, decision-makers lacked the wider context in which all those data points, combined, painted a convincing picture of looming danger. Like viewing a MagicEye puzzle, AI can provide the right perspective, faster, for decision-makers to better see the context, to recognize, anticipate and interrupt potential disaster in the making.

And for senior leaders who must make highly consequential decisions amidst seemingly endless uncertainty, the more complete the context, the more options available to the leader. AI tools, like some already deployed within the U.S. intelligence and SOF communities, can provide that context for deciders in the broader defense ecosystem. Today, these tools already enhance situational awareness, early warning, and deepen intelligence and context for better informed decision-making.

Though humans still process action through the “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act,” or OODA Loop, AI tools can already vastly accelerate the Observe and Orient phases for decision makers. The next step is to speed the decision and action phases of the cycle. Beyond speeding the decision cycle, AI tools can provide the ability to make it continuous so leaders can decide and act again before the adversary can effectively respond to the first action.

While DOD is working on leveraging AI, the pace of adoption of AI across the services – and the US defense enterprise writ large – is not yet moving at the speed required by the global security environment.

A faster way

There are good efforts already underway to speed this adoption: The office of Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer and Task Force Lima within DOD have been established to identify the best use cases and problem sets where DOD can rapidly apply AI. The 2024 NDAA also mandated pilot AI programs for the Air Force and Navy. Of course, hand in hand with these efforts, work must continue to streamline DOD’s acquisition and certification processes.

This is progress and what’s required now is calibrating these efforts to reduce the coefficient of friction. To go faster, DOD should more widely deploy already existing, trusted AI tools currently in use within the intelligence and SOF communities. Acknowledging the need for security, doing this would deliver the awareness and decision advantages our troops and leaders need far faster.

What do I mean by ‘decision advantage’? Before a leader takes an action, they should know their adversary’s likely reactions and the options available for counter-actionbefore they take their first action.

Speeding this cycle enables the leader to present the adversary with multiple, compounding dilemmas more rapidly than he can respond. AI is the way to deliver this decision advantage.

There is every reason to do this. As adversaries evade detection in their planning and early execution, seize hostages, or precipitate conflict in already highly destabilized areas; as nations like Russia, China, and Iran trigger crises in critical global chokepoints; the need for the US and allies to extract context from the cacophony of signals and data is greater than ever.

This is not about replacing our analysts and decision makers, it’s about making them better and far faster. DOD leaders can quickly yet prudently do this by embracing the pre-cleared, trusted AI tools in use by the IC and SOF. In so doing, they can ultimately reduce time to insight for leaders both on the ground and at the highest levels of command, to deter and, if need be, respond.

Stephen J. Townsend served as Commander, U.S. Africa Command from 2019 to 2022. He serves on the Federal Advisory Board of Primer, an AI technology company.