U.S. Central Command has the organization and infrastructure in place to support the Defense Department’s new initiative to quickly test and acquire thousands of unmanned systems operating autonomously in all domains and at scale, the command’s chief technology officer said on Wednesday.
The armed services already have components “focused on unmanned integration…and so, we are organized to move out quite quickly,” Schuyler Moore said during a conference hosted by Defense News.
Moore has been USCENTCOM’s CTO for just over a year and before that was the chief strategy officer for the Navy’s Task Force 59, which is routinely experimenting and operating with artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous systems in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. Task Force 59 is two years old and frequently uses commercially-developed unmanned systems and AI technology in maritime operations, providing valuable feedback to vendors while informing military needs but also demonstrating to the Navy and larger DoD that these systems can provide operational utility now.
The DoD’s new Replicator Initiative to acquire and deploy autonomous unmanned systems by the thousands in the next 18 to 24 months is an acknowledgement of “the brilliant technologies and the exceptional industry and the exquisite capability that we have at our finger tips,” she said.
The good news with a lot of the technology coming out of the commercial sector that is relevant for the Replicator effort is that it has “largely matured in commercial sectors,” allowing DoD to focus on whether these systems and technologies are operationally ready, Moore said. Technical maturity is overcoming the “physical barriers” in making sure something works whereas operational maturity is ensuring it works in an intended environment that might entail extreme heat, wind, sand, and salt, she said.
Another aspect of operationally mature technology is how easy can a user be trained on a system and then be effective in carrying out a mission, she said.
The combatant commands can test these “friction points” and are “appropriately positioned to be able to burn in that operational experimentation piece that is going to be particularly critical for commercial sector tech,” Moore said.
Despite Moore’s optimism, another DoD official said there are still challenges ahead with testing for autonomous solutions. Joe Larson, deputy for algorithmic warfare at DoD’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, said that while industry players with autonomous solutions have been asking for a standard to build to that meets the Pentagon’s requirements, that is just one part of the “overall testing ecosystem.”
The DoD needs to invest in digital twins, software tooling, and related infrastructure to be able to do the kind of testing of these autonomous systems in operationally relevant ways beyond what conventional testing of these solutions would allow, Larson said.
“This is not a question of standards,” he said during the panel discussion alongside Moore. “This is a question of the department actually investing in software tooling and infrastructure that makes it feasible. And incredibly complicated to build those environments in such a way that the results actually represent a meaningful output with respect to the operational space because operational considerations are so unique, right? There’s no real centralized way of doing this.”
This “sandbox” for testing will give industry an opportunity “at a software and algorithmic level to be able to test to ensure that their capability is meeting department standards before we get to the operational testing component, which is an equally important and, you know, critical part of the overall ecosystem.”