Air Force Weapons Are Getting Smarter. Will That Leave Some Airmen Out of a Job?
After a large military drone flew miles above the earth for more than a day, it maps and lands on a remote island in the Pacific. From launch to return, it completed its entire mission with no active input or command from a human operator on the station in the States. But even this future scenario with an unmanned system with advanced autonomy is not entirely without human interaction.
Somewhere somewhere a person is watching this drone and others who like it and ready to intervene in the event of a system failure or any unforeseen crisis.
The vision of expanding the operational range of the Air Force through advanced autonomous systems and artificial intelligence is nearing reality - and the impact of that vision will affect not only drone operations but many other areas as well. Self-guided machines are candidates for everyday or risky tasks that make up a large part of an aviator's workload, whether in engineering, safety, maintenance, or a variety of other careers. What the Air Force needs to determine as future approaches is how this new operational reality will affect the roles and responsibilities of human aviators and the structure of their work.
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"I think we are about to make major advances in AI and automation in some areas," Brig. Gen. David Harris, director of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability Office, known as AFWIC, said in an interview this week. The service's think tank-like organization stood up in 2018 to analyze where innovative solutions could be used to fill gaps or improve mission statements.
"The remote-controlled airplane [company] ... these things can come to fruition a lot faster than other aspects of automation, depending on the time and funding the Air Force puts into this effort," he said.
In today's operation, RPA pilots and sensor operators sit on the station for hours and monitor the movements of their drone, from the start of their mission to the execution or recovery of the system.
The proposed drone of the future "can come into the field in combat, land wherever it needs to, it has maps stored of different runways and where it can taxi ... these are things that we can see on very short notice," Harris said .
It's not just drones: automation and AI will give a boost to intelligence analysts collecting complex or data-intensive information. medical or administrative professionals using dozens of files or records; Maintenance flyers, which virtually simulate how an aircraft part is repaired before the actual job is done; and even stealth fighter pilots who will one day fly side by side with backup wingman drones.
Many, if not most, jobs will change with new models of training to incorporate new technology. Despite the technology revolution being predicted, officials say there is - at least for now - no plan to cut out entire occupations that are obsolete from machines, according to officials who recently spoke to Military.com.
"There's an old saying: if you want to use robotics and automation in three different areas, when they're boring, dirty, or dangerous," said Bob Work, former Pentagon deputy secretary of defense under the Obama administration.
The work he spoke to Military.com in his personal capacity was instrumental in promoting human-machine collaboration as part of the Pentagon's "Third Offset" strategy, the Department of Defense's drive to develop technologies that support the USA against opponents like Russia and China can use.
"Over time, no question about it, as autonomy improves and we develop concepts for operations with different types of autonomous applications, we can expect that you can potentially replace people in jobs they have today," said Work. "That doesn't mean you would get rid of the humans; you would most likely redirect the human to some other task that was better suited to human control."
The Air Force could invent a new special code for the Air Force or a new professional group focused solely on new technology or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programming, he said.
"You will still need technicians to program, code, and use this method," added Harris.
Machines are less likely to perform entire human-performed tasks than they are to perform specific tasks and functions, said Capt. Mike Kanaan, operations manager of AI Accelerator, the Air Force's joint venture program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And that, he added, will allow people to specialize and excel.
"It will free people to be more human," said Canaan. "Our lives, our jobs, are far too often computer tasks - not jobs."
"If we take away the little things in an aviator's life in every single job, we'll outsmart, innovate and surpass - there's no question about that," said Kanaan, also author of "T-Minus AI: Humanity's Countdown to" Artificial Intelligence and the New Striving for global power: "We're going to do more with people ... and be more thoughtful about what we're doing."
"Nowhere Nearby" to replace people
Pentagon officials have long said that if troop operations were augmented by some kind of intelligent thinking machine, a person would remain on standby - a human being "in the decision loop versus the decision loop".
That's because executives don't believe in having full faith in technology, said a retired Air Force general who is familiar with AI and algorithmic warfare and who spoke in the background to Military.com to freely discuss the matter.
"We're far from replacing people in areas like Intel wholesale analysis," said the retired general. While automation will find its way into the field, the technology that enables a machine to evaluate critical intelligence is "not yet advanced enough".
"[Even assuming it's getting closer and closer to that point, people have to do a lot more than they haven't had in time because they haven't been able to process the volumes of information that came in. The realist in me says, "Yes, some people will be replaced," but they are being transferred to an equally important task that they could not achieve before. In terms of these kind of big ones. I think you will be much more focused on that Human-machine teaming focuses on "which might actually require more people in the long run," he said.
Arbitrarily cutting people in favor of machines has ramifications, especially if the technology has not been proven - something the Air Force wants to pay special attention to in this case as it was almost burned before.
In 2018 there was an internal senior executive dispute over a plan to cut 5,000 intelligence workers in the top echelons of ISR by 2028. Senior executives wanted to include a reduction mandate in the service's Next Generation Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Dominance flight plan, "said the retired general. The study is the service's blueprint to incorporate more autonomy and data from multiple sensors on platforms that are stationed around the world.
However, the then deputy ISR chief made a compromise, "to say," substitute for slashes, "said the general who was involved in the discussions.
"Setting that [with an appropriate end date] while the technology is so fragile and brittle today has been difficult to project," said the general.
A similar conversation could take place about operators of air force tank booms.
Last month, Dr. Will Roper, Air Force Deputy Secretary for Procurement, Technology and Logistics, announced that the Air Force has begun making plans for its next tanker truck, which will have autonomous or semi-autonomous capabilities thanks to its efforts to repair the KC-46 Pegasus, among other things. Roper said the required redesign of the KC 46's Remote Vision System (RVS), now known as RVS 2.0, which allows the onboard operator to see the refueling system under the aircraft, puts the tanker on the verge of autonomous refueling.
A piece of it has already been demonstrated, said a former Air Force tanker pilot who now works in the defense industry. The pilot has been asked not to be identified as he is not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
In April, Airbus achieved the first fully automated air-to-air refueling using an aircraft mapping scheme that evaluates the type of aircraft receiving the fuel and feeds the information to the tanker. The onboard system can generally understand where the aircraft's recording is on the brand of the aircraft and can immediately plug in and begin refueling.
But the pilot said the Air Force should still be suspicious of getting rid of human operators for the following reasons: "It's about movement, and there are variables [like] bumps that you experience in flight that you don't see coming," Pilot said.
"So if there is a human in there to ... foresee that something might happen, and if it does, you can fly the boom out of the way," the pilot continued. "It's really hard to replicate through autonomy."
"An automated system has to have these safeguards in place, and you can do it. It just needs to be proven through tests and [hundreds] probability runs," said the pilot.
Make the leap
AI and automation are not new concepts. The Pentagon has used a handful of automated systems - including missile detection and tracking, and computer functions - in its fighter jets for decades.
But the two technologies are not equivalent and cannot be used for everything, Kanaan said. And if airplanes are to use automation or AI successfully, huge amounts of data must first be optimized.
"That's why there is an effort in digitization because only then can you make smart decisions about where automation should be number one and only then can AI shed light on key insights," he said.
According to a former Air Force official now in the tech industry, it is time the services took advantage of these advances in technology - big data, AI - smarter and faster. That means the service is racing around the clock to see how intelligence and increasingly powerful machines affect the role of humans in the ranks.
"The military has not invested in the further development of its architectures and data centers - like leaving physical data centers," said the tech expert, referring to the transition to cloud computing. The tech industry expert asked not to be identified.
After years of paying attention to counterinsurgency conflict, "the policy-making people look at trades and specialties in a very traditional way," the expert said. "They don't really understand the fundamental shift in the digital age. That's a big problem.
"If these conditions don't change, we'll be left behind very, very quickly - we're probably falling behind," said the expert.
There were cumulative gains. For one, the Air Force is going into full swing with a strategy to link weapons and capabilities for more centralized surveillance and control. Known as the Advanced Battle Management System, the state-of-the-art program focuses on aggregating ISR sensor data from a variety of weapons and spacecraft around the world.
The endeavor requires hundreds of people, from the unit level to the combatant command level. The Air Force's largest ABMS test to date, conducted last month, spanned the US Northern Command and US Space Command and included "70 industrial teams, 65 government teams from all services including the Coast Guard, 35 military platforms, 30 geographic locations and four national ones Test areas, "the service said in a press release.
Experiments so far have shown that the service continues to develop applicable technology that works with the warfighter - rather than pushing people out.
ABMS will ultimately affect robot warfare as well. As part of the recent ABMS test, the Air Force sent "robot dogs" to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to inspect the site and provide security airmen with additional situational awareness when opening an airfield.
Another jump initiative is the Air Force's Skyborg program, which is developing AI-enabled drones that will one day be deployed in front of fighter jets and respond to incoming threats to protect their human pilot-wingman. These drones collect data and immediately forward it to the pilot - and to an extensive network. Officials intend to make Skyborg operational in 2023 at the earliest.
Work, now chairman of the National Artificial Intelligence Security Commission, said the services were demonstrably more advanced in their technical development - with ABMS and Skyborg trials - than they were in the days of the third offset strategy. "But in my opinion we are still moving too slowly," he said.
"Both the Chinese and the Russians are trying to outperform the United States in terms of military might [with automation and] AI-enabled applications," he said. "So I'm never satisfied, we're moving fast enough. We have to take this seriously."
"There's an old adage [about] politicians running for office and they always say, 'No matter what the polls say, you go like you're losing,'" Work added. "We have to aggressively pursue these technologies. We have to run like we're losing."
- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ oriana0214.
Related: The days of secret military operations may soon be over. Does it matter?
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