Col. Kurian on Collaboration, AI in the Military, and the Future of Training


Modern Integrated Warfare regularly connects with various voices across the defense community to share with our readers valuable insights from the experts about the evolving multi-domain battlespace and how training is keeping pace with innovative technologies. In this installment of Faces of Training, we spoke with Col. John Kurian, USAF, Senior Materiel Leader, Simulators Division, to learn more about his unique path through the U.S. Air Force and where he sees the future of military training headed.

Here’s what he had to share with us.

Modern Integrated Warfare (MIW) Editors: Tell us about your career path and your experience in the defense world. What attracted you to the military?

Col. John Kurian, USAF, Senior Materiel Leader, Simulators Division

Col. Kurian: When I first started my military career, I came in as a developmental engineer and then moved more into intel ops support and program management roles. I even had a bit of experience on the HR side of things as well, so I’ve moved around a bit throughout my tenure.

As far as my initial attraction to the military, I actually grew up in India and Libya and moved to the U.S. when I was 12. Because my family had no money set aside for college, the ROTC program was a great way for me to get my education and learn leadership skills along the way. Joining the military was originally a means to an end, but now having lived overseas and having been deployed, I acknowledge that there is no place like the U.S. for opportunities and freedom and protection. I am proud to continue serving to preserve the freedom that we experience and protect it for other folks around the world.

MIW Editors: How has the defense industry’s approach to technological adoption evolved over the years?

Col. Kurian: When I look back at the ‘80s and ‘90s, the defense industry was definitely an early adopter for new technologies like the Internet. However, we have not been able to sustain that trajectory over the years. Various factors like R&D budgets, policy, culture or human capital have influenced our ability to evolve over time. Dr. Roper describes this evolution as “we [DoD] remained a flip-phone military in what is now a smartphone world.” 

The good news is that Air Force Senior leaders like General Brown are driving us to regain the technological advantage and move faster to adopt commercial technologies like AI and 5G for our advancement of Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). 

MIW Editors: What are you most excited about in terms of technological innovation in defense?

Col. Kurian: To me, technological innovation in defense is really about improving the decision-making capability of commanders at the tactical edge and tools like AI and data analytics are key enablers. I think of my time in the intelligence world, where we had access to lots of data from ground, space, airborne and maritime sensors. However, it was very difficult to find the needle in that haystack, so to speak, when you’re after a High Value Target. The intelligence community led a concerted effort to organize the data, leverage data analytics, improve interoperability and rapidly deploy software tools for the analysts – they successfully closed some gaps between sensors and shooters but perhaps not at the scale and pace that’s being discussed with JADC2.

So, there is a clear tie there for intel applications, but I see a similar trend for training enterprise. The training enterprise is moving towards a “plug-n-play” architecture and a “Family of Systems” approach in developing and managing various elements of the Operational Test and Training infrastructure. I can definitely see opportunities to leverage AI and data analytics as we provide integrated training capability across all domains, especially in the ensuring the operator’s training system prepares him or her for making near real-time decisions in a highly complex environment. 

MIW Editors: How do you see the defense industry evolving in the coming years with regards to simulation and training?

Col. Kurian: Well, as we just touched on, we’re going to continue seeing AI and data analytics used to ensure operator’s training systems prepare him or her to employ advanced warfighter capabilities. I also expect defense industry to adopt advancements in high fidelity distributed training, AR/VR and shared data common synthetic environments. These technologies have the potential of being fairly pervasive, to include the early phases of training in selecting and preparing the right person, delivering competency-based training and education and making training available anywhere. I think organizations like the Distributed Training Centers, including Virtual Test and Training Center at Nellis AFB, will be critical in helping us understand the training requirements and best use of these technologies.

The other shift I am noticing is the emphasis on model-based system engineering, digital engineering, and open systems architecture, where our training systems are starting to move away from those proprietary technologies. The old system design would be so private and certainly not designed to interact with each other. But with efforts like SCARS [Simulator Common Architecture Requirement Standards], we’re certainly trying to make sure that we have the ability to evolve our training systems such that they do interoperate and the government can identify key interfaces to build on. In turn, that allows smaller businesses or other industries to compete in that space and add options into the mix more quickly.

So, the training world perhaps is a bit slower with adopting this kind of thought process, but certainly, from where I’m sitting with initiatives like SCARS or ABMS, we are moving rapidly in that direction.

MIW Editors: What advice do you have for people who are looking to work with defense decision-makers?

Col. Kurian: I think sometimes there can be a real communication barrier between the public and private sectors. It’s important for DoD to clearly articulate what our needs and expectations are and for industry to recognize that there is a process that those solutions need to undergo before they can be fully adopted. Try to make sure there is a good dialogue on both sides of the house so that both sides have a strong understanding of what it takes to bring our ideas across the finish line.

That’s why we have an innovation cell within our organization that works with small businesses, explores the adaptability of their ideas for defense applications and connects them with the right programs where their innovations can really succeed. And that’s why events like I/ITSEC are so important; they open up those lines of communication and start conversations to help organizations and decision-makers find the right fit.

You can hear more from Col. Kurian during the USAF and USSF 0-6 Panel and the U.S. Air Force Acquisition Update at vIITSEC. Click here to learn more.