Army Secretary Mark Esper made it clear to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) July 16 that he would prioritize artificial intelligence technology development should he be confirmed as the next secretary of defense.

“Different people put different things at number one; for me, it’s artificial intelligence,” he said during his confirmation hearing in response to a question from SASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Ranking Member Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) about his main technology priorities.

U.S. Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper answers questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., July 16, 2019. Esper was nominated for Secretary of Defense by President Donald J. Trump on July 15, 2019. (DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

AI “will likely change the character of warfare, and I believe that whoever masters it will dominate on the battlefield for many, many, many years,” Esper said.

The Army Secretary noted the restructuring of the service’s rapid capabilities office to become the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office under his watch, as well as the creation of a new Army AI task force hub at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh this past February.

“I just think it’s a fundamental gamechanger,” Esper said. “We have to get there first.”

Hypersonics, directed energy, robotics and autonomous technologies will also be priorities for research and development funds under a potential Defense Secretary Esper, he added.

In terms of major program priorities, Esper highlighted the need to modernize the nuclear triad and “fully develop the domain of space as a warfighting domain.” The Defense Department must also improve its cyber space capabilities and policies and upgrade a range of conventional capabilities, he noted.

While Tuesday’s hearing became somewhat heated as Democratic presidential candidate and SASC member Sen. Elizabeth Warren grilled Esper on his past as a lobbyist for Raytheon [RTN], the Senate is largely expected to approve his confirmation (Defense Daily, July 16).

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters July 17 on Capitol Hill that he expects Esper’s nomination to be voted out of committee Thursday morning, to hopefully get a full vote scheduled on the Senate floor by early next week.

“Every day that goes by is important,” he said. “We need to have a permanent secretary in that position.”