The US Air Force's New AI System Will Help Identify and Destroy Targets

Deploying its first 'live operational kill chain.'
Christopher McFadden

The U.S. Air Force recently alluded to an event that used artificial intelligence to help identify a target or a set of targets in a "live operational kill chain". The remarks were made by Frank Kendall at the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on the 20th of September 2021.

No information was given on the nature of the exercise, such as whether it was via a drone or piloted aircraft. It was also not mentioned whether it was simply a demonstration of a concept, or a live operation resulting in actual casualties, or not. 

In case you are unaware, a "kill chain" is a military concept that relates to the structure of an attack. It consists of target acquisition, force deployment, targeting, decisions to make a kill, and the final destruction of the target or targets. Likewise, the inverse is also an existing military concept whereby defending forces do everything in their capability to prevent the enemy from doing so. 

This gripping comment was used as an example of why investing in such innovations will be very valuable to many armed forces. 

According to reports on the conference, Kendall said that the Air Force’s chief architect’s office “deployed AI algorithms for the first time to a live operational kill chain”. This system formed part of the Air Force’s multi-site Distributed Common Ground System and an air operations center “for automated target recognition.”

This is not only interesting, but the use of AI in this way is fast moving from the theoretical to the practical -- potentially in real kinetic warfare.

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No specific details were provided, but the broad intent of this system is to “significantly reduce the manpower-intensive tasks of manually identifying targets—shortening the kill chain and accelerating the speed of decision-making", Kendall said.

Another Air Force spokesman, Jacob N. Bailey, told Air Force Magazine that “these AI algorithms were employed in operational intelligence toolchains, meaning integrated into the real-time operational intel production pipeline to assist intelligence professionals in the mission to provide more timely intelligence. The algorithms are available at any [DCGS site] and via the [DCGS] to any [air operations center] whenever needed, so they’re not confined to a particular location.”

Further to this, The Defense Department has previously acknowledged a further need to gather intelligence from afar as well—in addition to holding targets at risk—in pursuing its “over-the-horizon” strategy of monitoring Afghanistan for terrorist activities.

According to Kendall, the evacuation from Kabul relied heavily on “continuous surveillance from space and the air.”

In July, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said DOD had stepped up its number of AI efforts over the prior year. The department preceded that acceleration by adopting five “ethical principles” for AI development and use.

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