Q&A: LTG Ret. Mary Legere Discusses the Impact of AI and Machine Learning on the Future Battlespace

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Earlier this month, defense industry leaders gathered at AUSA 2018 to discuss where the U.S. Army is headed in the future, and look at what new technologies are most efficiently equipping the warfighter for mission success. From unmanned systems to artificial intelligence (AI) enabled weapons, the battlefield is quickly evolving. The Modern Battlespace team connected with Lieutenant General Mary A. Legere (Ret.), Managing Director for National and Defense Intelligence Business at Accenture, who shared her thoughts on how AI and machine learning (ML) are changing the way we approach defense.

Here’s what she had to share during our discussion:

The Modern Battlespace Editors: What are some of the challenges that the warfighter is facing today on the battlefield?

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LTG Mary Legere (Ret.), Managing Director & National and Defense Intelligence Lead, Accenture

LTG Mary Legere (Ret.): The current and evolving national security environment is as complex and dynamic as ever  in our nation’s history.

Global instability, the increasing urbanization of the global population, the resurgence in great-power competition, the emergence of cyber, space and information domains as contested battlespace – and the impact of evolutionary and revolutionary technology being used by our adversaries – are challenging our warfighters’ ability to maintain their position as the most dominant joint force in the world.

For our commanders and warfighters – in every service and at every echelon – making sense of the increasingly complex and chaotic battlespace at the speed of mission command is the one of their most pressing challenges.

To succeed, finding ways to help our warfighters gain and maintain strategic mastery of their mission data – through skillful design, planning and application of innovative technology — will be key to ensuring they can retain decision advantage over potential adversaries in the near and future operating environments.

Editors: The battlefield domain has expanded from land, air, sea, to now space and cyber. How do we best prepare military command and control and the warfighter to fight and win wars?

Legere: As one of our Army’s senior leaders recently said, “The battlespace we are going to operate in the future is not like any we have seen before.” I would agree.

To fight and win multi-domain operations now and in the future, our senior military leaders must man, train, and equip their forces in as realistic an environment as possible, replicating the known and anticipated speed, lethality, and complexity of these new and evolving environments.

Readying our forces for multi-domain operations – which will include contested space, cyber and information domains – is now the priority.

Through these efforts, our leaders will develop new operational concepts, and identify new requirements for capabilities and skill sets that, once acquired, will improve our warfighters’ abilities to sense, understand, decide, and operate in multiple domains at speeds that will allow them to dominate any adversary.

Continued focus on this, and on improving access and interoperability of data and information between systems and across command posts, will be the key so that our forces can gain and sustain a common understanding of this expanded battlespace, and can work synergistically to anticipate threats and to seize opportunities for decisive action across all domains.

Editors: What technologies are enabling the warfighter and addressing the challenges today?

Legere: To fight and win in this evolving security environment, DoD is now investing in a range of technologies to improve its ability for warfighters to operate in multi-domain environments.

As part of the Third Offset Strategy, none are more important than the broad investments in artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems – which will, when widely introduced, greatly improve the ability of our forces to achieve conventional overmatch against potential adversaries.

Within DoD, the early returns on AI pilots to exploit advances in computer vision, natural language processing, machine learning, deep learning (DL), and intelligent automation are promising – and certainly providing powerful examples of AI’s disruptive ability to aid and enhance our analysts, operators and warfighters in the execution of their warfighting tasks.

As a former Army G2, I am excited by the early returns on efforts to use AI to speed image definition, proces imagery, enable voice and language translation, detect cyber threats, streamline and automate supply chains, and to aid our medical professionals in medical diagnosis.   While much work remains to establish the proper governance, workforce and enterprises to support the expansion of these operations at scale, there is every reason to be optimistic.

It is also apparent that there is greater recognition across the services and in DoD of the necessity for pairing AI pilots with corresponding investments in big data and cloud migration – foundational work that must be done if the promise of AI is to reach its full potential. Across DoD, the important work to standardize, normalize, verify, and enrich data, to establish effective governance, standards and analytics, and to plan and prepare for migration to cloud are key steps in the journey to AI-enabled mission environments.

In these efforts, DoD can accelerate the lessons learned by leaning on insights from commercial sectors that have succeeded in modernizing their mission information environments, incorporating leading IT capabilities, practices and technologies to optimize AI applications and to transform the way they work.   DoD can gain much from companies like Accenture who can assist with a digital strategy to help them thoughtfully apply technology and best practice to optimize their data for mission success.

Editors: What trends do you think will impact the battlespace in the future?

Legere: Looking to the future, I believe technology, and in particular advances in AI, autonomous systems, the Internet of Things, quantum computing, and directed energy weapons will have the most profound effect on battlespace and will challenge our way of war.

Today, as in eras past, when confronted with advances in evolving tactics, doctrine and weapons, the United States and its armed forces will have to respond with transformational leaps in warfighting capabilities, modernizing, and refitting our forces with the capabilities required to gain and maintain the operational and strategic advantage in multi-domain environment.

Of greatest interest and uncertainly is how the increasingly contested cyber, space and the information domains will play out, how it will extend the battlespace, and what technology and operational concepts will emerge to allow commanders to gain and maintain strategic and operational advantage over our adversaries.

With our reliance on space and information systems, it is clear we must continue to build our cyber capabilities – both to protect our freedom of maneuver in cyber space, while restricting that of our adversaries.

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Chelsea is an Editor for The Modern Battlespace, and oversees editorial strategy and content development for the site. Chelsea writes for other federal government and technology industry publications. Her background lies in B2B and enterprise technology, specifically cloud computing, SaaS, travel IT, and mobile devices.