Technology Investment Implications of the New National Defense Strategy

Posted by Alexander Rossino on January 30, 2018

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Readers may have seen recently that the Secretary of Defense released a new National Defense Strategy to replace the Quadrennial Defense Review. The new NDS remains classified (a summary is available here), so determining how to interpret the contents from a technology investment perspective can be challenging. That said, a few clues about the Department of Defense’s priorities dropped over the preceding months, including the testimony of Dr. Mara Karlin of Johns Hopkins University before the Senate Armed Services Committee last November. During that SASC “Hearing on Recommendations for a Future National Defense Strategy,” Dr. Karlin commented on the importance of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles for the DOD’s future requirements.

Specifically, Dr. Karlin recommended that “the U.S. military must lean forward to exploit the benefits of emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence and autonomy. Key areas of investment … should include undersea, long-range strike, combat air force (particularly modernizing 4th generation aircraft and balancing the portfolio more broadly), counter-unmanned autonomous systems, short range air defenses, munitions, cyber resilience, and technology that facilitates operations in contested environments with degraded communications.”

Defense Secretary Mattis echoed these recommendations in a summary of the new NDS, writing: “The security environment is also affected by rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war. … New technologies include advanced computing, “big data” analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology—the very technologies that ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.”

I’ve written before on the growing importance the DOD puts on leveraging AI (primarily machine learning at this point) and autonomy, so it’s good to see their significance validated. It’s always reassuring to know one isn’t barking up the wrong tree. As for the numbers, what do they say? Based on an analysis of the DOD’s R&D and Procurement budget documents for fiscal 2018, the total amount of funding requested for programs that include AI/machine learning will average $2.4B per year through fiscal 2022.

These are programs that utilize AI/machine learning technology in one way or another, including projects that may use other technologies, so the numbers provided here should not be thought of as “the DOD’s AI budget.” There is no way to parse AI/machine learning funding as accurately as we all would like so this is the best I can offer. The numbers should be used as a general indication of the importance that the DOD places on investing in the technology.

The numbers for unmanned systems are also impressive, if somewhat front-loaded by a whopping $2.3B request from the U.S. Navy. Many of these systems contain investments in autonomy, one of the areas called out by Secretary Mattis and, presumably, important for the NDS itself.

Keep in mind the same caveat concerning the AI/machine learning budget for the figures provided here. These numbers represent the requested budgets for programs with an unmanned systems component. Some programs are entirely dedicated to a system like the Reaper, but others have more than one technology mentioned. Lastly, some program budgets mentioning autonomy are included under the AI/machine learning numbers.

What these numbers show is that even with Secretary Mattis’ recent NDS announcement, investment in AI/machine learning and in unmanned systems already attracted a massive number of defense dollars. The NDS simply confirms a trend that has already been happening across the DOD for some time. In this sense vendors with capabilities in this space are well positioned for a flood of funding, especially if the new NDS signals an even greater focus on AI and autonomy in the years to come.

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