ALGORITHMIC WARFARE ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Pentagon Shakes Up AI, Digital Bureaucracies
Defense Dept. photo
In December, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks made waves when she issued a memo announcing the creation of a new key role that would report directly to her: the chief digital and artificial intelligence officer.
The individual selected for the position — which was slated to become effective Feb. 1 — will oversee three critical Pentagon offices: the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, Office of the Chief Data Officer and Defense Digital Service. As of press time, the Pentagon had not announced who had been chosen for the role.
“The department has made significant strides in unlocking the power of its data, harnessing artificial intelligence and providing digital solutions for the Joint Force,” Hicks said in the memo. “Yet stronger alignment and synchronization are needed to accelerate decision advantage and generate advanced capabilities for our warfighters.”
The official in the new position, also known as CDAO, will be responsible for strengthening and integrating data, AI and digital solutions within the Pentagon, Hicks said. The office is expected to reach full operating capability by June 1.
Officials and experts say the move will help the Pentagon accelerate its adoption of AI and other digital technologies.
“It’s going to allow us that stronger alignment to really accelerate into the future in a more formal manner,” the Pentagon’s Chief Data Officer David Spirk said during a media roundtable hosted by George Washington University’s Project for Media and National Security in January. “I don’t view it as a bureaucracy — if anything, I think the establishment of this activity knocks down some bureaucratic walls because it puts all of us under one vision.”
The shakeup shows that the Pentagon is doubling down on a data-driven future and ensures that today’s focus on data management isn’t just a passing fad, he said.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, former head of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, said the creation of the position is a natural evolution for the Defense Department.
“This is the next important step of three different organizations that have been working toward similar ends, but not always aligned as closely as they could have been,” he said. “Not only are the three organizations interrelated, they are intertwined in that they all deal with the same big problems the department has with software, with data, with AI, with emerging technologies.”
Shanahan — who retired from the Air Force in 2020 and is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security — said there is an opportunity to create fewer administrative burdens within the Pentagon, especially for Hicks who had three disparate organizations reporting to her.
The individual who is selected will have the opportunity to make an enormous difference for the department, he added.
“It’s never about one person, but the person who they select will have to have the trust and confidence of not just the deputy, but the secretary of defense, the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], the vice chairman, the services and the combatant commands,” Shanahan said. “It’s a really important decision.”
Rather than go with a three-star general — as the Pentagon did with its appointments for the JAIC, including Shanahan and his successor Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael Groen — for the role, the department should pick someone that has exceptional technology credentials and experience in Silicon Valley, Shanahan suggested.
“You’re trying to take a Department of Defense — which is a hardware company from the industrial age — and begin this massive transformation into a software company in a digital age,” he said. “That requires someone that understands how you do this in the commercial world.”
However, the Pentagon will also need a deputy CDAO that understands very well how the bureaucracy of the Defense Department works.
“It is hard work as I learned over and over again in my time in the Pentagon, to work through budget battles, to work through processes, to work through human capital issues,” he said. “You need someone that can work that system, that knows people in the inside of the building that can walk the corridors, meet and greet people and say, ‘This is what we really do.’”
Right off the bat, the CDAO will have a lot on their plate, Shanahan noted. On day one, the official will need to take a survey of what’s out there and what still needs to be done in the department, he said.
They will find that “we still have a whole lot of work to do,” Shanahan said. “Where does it begin? We treat AI as a single thing. Sometimes we treat it as sort of magic dust — it’s not. It requires a lot of work across what we call the ‘AI stack.’ And there are so many elements that have to be addressed.”
Critical to the success of the new officer will be obtaining the right authorities from Congress, he noted.
“It’s going to take some real groundwork behind the scenes with staffers and members to get it right,” he said. If lawmakers understand “that the only way you get this right is putting the authorities and responsibility in the form of one person, they will do it. It may be hard work to get there, but I think what you will see is they’re willing to do it because it’s that important.”