Army’s largest corps is getting its troops AI-enabled

The Defense Department is putting tons of resources into futuristic technologies like artificial intelligence and hypersonics. But after those weapons are fielded, will individual service members be able to use them quickly and effectively?

The Army’s 18th Airborne Corps is asking just that question and embarking on a new program that it hopes will prime the pump from the time an advanced weapon is equipped and the time it takes to use it properly.

“I look at it becoming data literate like basic marksmanship on a rifle. Every soldier that comes in, whether they’re private or lieutenant, should have to be able to qualify on their weapon,” Col. Dan Kearney, the corps’ future operations director said during a roundtable Tuesday at the Association of the U.S. Army conference. “To some degree, our formation in large needs to have some kind of basic data literacy level.”

The 18th Airborne is using a corps-wide effort called Project Ridgway to train and educate soldiers on data and cloud platforms. The hope is that the Airborne will be an AI-enabled workforce that is versed enough to be able to use new technologies faster and as soon as they get into the hands of soldiers.

The project focuses on four lines of effort: giving soldiers data courses, using data governance, leveraging cloud technology and practicing data management.

“We’ve partnered with the United States Military Academy in order to provide a four-hour data one on one, I like to call it the data for dummies course,” Kearney said. “It give soldiers some kind of data appreciation, and it’s loosely mirrored off of Carnegie Mellon University’s data driven leaders course.”

The Airborne also teamed up with Coursera and other places in academia to provide 90 credit hours to 150 people per quarter. The corps accounts for about 35% of the active duty Army with 92,000 soldiers. The first cohort ended at the end of September.

Another effort under the project teams with U.S. Special Operations Command is offering a fellowship to soldiers.

Code-savvy soldiers go through a coding boot camp and then transfer to SOCOM and work with subject matter experts for about six months.

The 18th Airborne is working with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft on cloud architecture, as well to develop soldiers’ skills in that area.

“Lines of effort three and four really continues on this whole concept of building the right foundation to ensure that as we try to do things to leverage today’s technology for today’s problems, that we have the right infrastructure in place, and that we have the right rule sets in place,” said Col. Molly Solsbury, director of Project Ridgway. “That includes ensuring that we are focused on the right data format, that we’re sending the right message to all of our different warfighting functions in terms of what format we want data and in how we want data secured. It’s also about how we want data shared; something is easy and as simple as saying ‘We want to move to live data.’”

Solsbury said getting infrastructure prepared and ready for troops to use is critical for allowing innovation to flourish.

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