USAF Summit Answers Chinese Manhattan Project on AI, Holmes Says

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes spoke to employees at the MITRE Corp. outside Washington, D.C., May 14, 2018. AFA photo by Bridget Dongu.

Senior Air Force leaders will gather at JB Andrews, Md. this week to hash out a corporate approach to artificial intelligence and quantum computing, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes reported Monday.

Speaking to employees at the MITRE Corp. outside Washington, D.C., Holmes acknowledged that, “We’re certainly not the only ones” pursuing a vigorous AI and quantum research effort, asserting that China’s efforts in this area amount to a national “Manhattan Project.”

The “summit” at the Gen. Jacob Smart Conference Center, he said, will “bring all the Air Force leadership together—warfighters and acquirers—and try to sort through some of the [issues] of what our approach should be, how are we going to emphasize it and motivate our nation” to compete vigorously.

Holmes added that, to him, “this is one of those battles [where] being second is being last.” He compared it to “weaponizing space,” asserting that, “if you’re the last one to figure out how AI affects the battlespace…then you may be disarmed before you start.”

USAF has to “stay after it,” and he said the service is depending on “folks like you, our academic researchers, the national labs…to help us think this through.”

Holmes said that applying AI in combat is not as far into the future “as people might think it is,” noting that USAF relies on the mechanical brains of AMRAAM missiles to autonomously pursue a target, and on cockpit aids, such as in the F-22, where “the airplane works the radar, finds the targets, puts them in a shoot list recommendation to the pilot” and “the pilot says ‘yes.’” The Air Force is already “comfortable with some of those ideas,” Holmes said.

“I think our future does depend on autonomy,” Holmes declared, but much needs to be debated about how much authority to give to systems like remotely piloted aircraft. USAF has relied on such systems for years, he noted, but that has been possible due to assured communications and high bandwidth. If contact is lost, “how much authority will we give up; what’s the role, person in the loop, guidance, planning, release of lethal force?” Holmes added, “I think we will try all those things,” such as swarming tactics.

He insisted, though, that while the Air Force is interested in exploring such new concepts, his job is “to make sure that these interesting ideas are useful weapons that close the kill chain” and not just “a cool idea [that’s] fun to build.”