With the world as it is, U.S. agility is more important than ever

Widening military conflicts around the world have military planners in the U.S. on edge. For some perspective on resiliency, innovation and artificial intellige...

Widening military conflicts around the world have military planners in the U.S. on edge. For some perspective on resiliency, innovation and artificial intelligence in the Defense domain, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin visited the AUSA Conference in Washington earlier this month and spoke with former DoD and Navy chief information officer (and Army veteran) Terry Halvorsen, now with IBM.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin There are breakouts of conflict now on two major fronts in the world, one in the Middle East, one in Ukraine. And they’re not isolated, are they? And what do you think the agility needs to be in the United States to be able to deal with these in a way that they don’t threaten us or that we can resolve them in a way that is positive for our influence in the world?

Terry Halvorsen Tom, that’s a great question. And I would add, while it’s not maybe at the same level as Ukraine and what’s going on in the Middle East, but we’ve got a fairly intense situation in China, especially in the sea area there. So I think this is a time where we really have to start being able to show agility. And maybe in the most important area, we’ve got to be able to show agility in the ability to exchange information and data with our allies. I mean, as you just said, these are not isolated events. So if we can keep the data exchange between the allies and take the things that are common data or things that are going to be important across all of these areas at the same time, get it to them at what I’ll call mission speed or at commander speed, it gives the U.S. and the allies a big advantage in whatever operations we want to conduct, even if they’re short of war. It gives us that intelligent decision advantage.

Tom Temin But haven’t we always done that? I mean, what’s holding us back here?

Terry Halvorsen I would say we’ve always done it, generally we’ve done it pretty well when it got to a war situation. I think today, the volume of data we need to move, the number of changing allies, and the incredible pace of technology is challenging our systems. It’s challenging our acquisition system. It’s challenging somewhat our decision systems, even inside DoD. And I would say right now, it’s certainly challenging — and this is not a political statement about either side — it’s just we’re in a challenging political situation to be able to get all of the decisions we need on time.

Tom Temin Yeah, I guess getting a 45 — or whatever it was — day continuing resolution counts as good political backing these days and we won’t go there too much here.

Terry Halvorsen Right. But I think — again, not a political statement — but I do think when you have that, and unfortunately the department has had to get used to dealing with continuing resolutions, but it’s gotten much worse. So it just impacts the entire decision making cycle, so it slows up the budget, it slows up decisions. You compound that with some of the acquisition issues that we face and it really becomes a super challenge of can we keep the right pace in both acquiring and fielding these new systems that will continue to give us and our allies decision advantage? And I would say the thing that I see in the Defense Department today — and I think it is the key and I see this in the Defense Department from all our allies — is no one’s talking without saying the word allied. I mean, we just got back from vacation in Italy. But while I was there, I ran into some of our Italian counterparts, German counterparts, NATO’s counterparts, all of them are talking, my gosh, the importance of the allies being able to just get decision quality data in command or mission time across the seams. And if we can do that and continue to accelerate that, it really will give us a pretty big advantage.

Tom Temin And there’s a couple of really big commissions going on right now; there was just the interim report on acquisition reform for the DoD. And they said ‘this is what we’re going to suggest, but we’re not formally suggesting it yet’ aimed at that whole idea of getting acquisition up to the decision of what is needed for decision making. What’s your hope there?

Terry Halvorsen Two things: I think they’re on the right track. The thing I would say is what we may need is some more accelerated training. We’ve got a lot of new contract officers and a lot of retirements, a lot of new contracting officers in DoD — a lot of them in other agencies, but we’ll limit this to DoD — they need to understand all of the authorities that they have. One of the things that I do see is some of the new acquisition officers maybe don’t understand every authority that they have that could help accelerate what they’re doing. And so that tends to slow some things down. On the other hand, I think industry also needs to be more specific in ‘this is what we can do. This is the set of products that can deliver a solution,’ and it’s going to mean that industry has got to partner more too. I’m very proud of IBM right now. We’re really reaching out hard to make sure that we’re partnering, and we’re partnering with companies that can bring the right solutions. And I think that’s where industry has to step up. It’s delivering a solution. And we’re going to talk about the key areas. AI is a key area we need to get solutions on because they need to be solutions that are not only mission speed capable, but they also have to be ethical, which my definition says when it’s time to pull a trigger, we’ve got to have a man in the loop. That’s what we have to keep doing.

Tom Temin Yeah, the idea of autonomy extends to that point, but only to that point. Which means that you have to have a pretty careful understanding and application of the way you do your AI.

Terry Halvorsen I’m going to say this: The process of getting there, as you just said, is really critical. No matter whose AI you’re using, it’s that process, making sure that the data you’re using has auditability and is authentic because just like AI can be a great tool for the good, it can help us produce all kinds of fake data, too. So the thing that we have stressed in IBM and what we have gotten great responses from, particularly from the Army leadership, is the fact that we show an auditable, authentic system that can verify the data. And I think anybody doing that right now, that’s got to be an emphasis point. And to some extent you’ve got to be able and willing to teach some of that to the defense systems and their contractors, regardless of what funding is there, you’ve got to teach that to them so they know how to do that and they’ll do the best buys possible.

Tom Temin And what is IBM peddling at the Army show?

Terry Halvorsen It is really about data, and that means it’s about how AI can help them improve decision, be a force multiplier. It’s about automation. One of the things that we do know and let’s take cybersecurity for an example. We’re not going to have enough cybersecurity people. It’s just not going to happen. So one of the ways you fix that is you’ve got to have a solution that has A.I. automation and data management that becomes a force multiplier so that those security analysts are looking at a much greater defined set of data that lets them get to decisions quicker on mission time. And that’s where we really have to keep focusing.

Tom Temin Yeah, the challenge in AI and the greater point of decision making is not big data anymore, it’s the correct data and that could be small data.

Terry Halvorsen Well, I’m going to say it’s two things. It’s still big data because the volume of data keeps — you know, we threw out Moore’s Law a long time ago — it keeps growing and growing and growing. And then you just added a great comment. And not only is it growing and growing and growing, fake data is growing probably even faster that that. So how do you make sure you’ve got the right data? You get through the big volumes of data and you’re triaging that data, so you’re pulling out what is the most optimum, important data to the right level of command? That’s the other thing. And I will give the Army credit. I think they’ve gotten really good at saying ‘not everybody needs every piece of data.’ A battalion has this limited sphere. They need this data. A division needs this data. A corps needs this data. In fact, when we get that data to commanders at the right level, let them command. And I really applaud the Army for stepping up on that right now

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