WASHINGTON — U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command lack the artificial intelligence capabilities needed to do their jobs to the fullest and maintain an edge over rival nations, according to the leader of both organizations.

“My assessment today is I don’t have what I need, as far as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to give the decision space to the president, secretary of defense, the chief of defense staff in Canada, the minister of defense and the prime minister in Canada,” Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck said at a Defense Writers Group event April 25.

VanHerck is the commander of NORTHCOM and NORAD. The former is responsible for guarding the continental U.S. and its surroundings. The latter combines U.S. and Canadian efforts to monitor and protect North American airspace, among other things.

NORTHCOM recently asked Congress for an additional $29.8 million to buy information technology equipment and to optimize infrastructure for AI and machine learning at its joint operations center with NORAD. The upgrades would bolster efforts to ingest, process and share data across the Department of Defense, also known as the “information dominance enabling capability,” according to a fiscal year 2023 unfunded priority list obtained by Defense News.

While this year’s budget moves “the ball down the field with regards to domain awareness,” VanHerck said, more is needed to meet new challenges.

“We’ll be able to, hopefully, field over-the-horizon capabilities, which will give us more standoff distance than what we currently have today,” he said. “But we also need to take that domain awareness — the sensors that we have today and any potential new sensors — and share that data and information and utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning to make that data and information available sooner than we have in the past, and to decision makers.”

Congress in fiscal 2022 pitched a $200 million program to boost adoption of AI across combatant commands, dovetailing with the Pentagon’s AI and Data Acceleration, or ADA, initiative.

VanHerck told lawmakers last month that advanced capabilities will help give the U.S. an advantage over complex competitors, such as Russia or China. Both have invested in AI for military use.

“Incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning into existing capabilities will allow users to pull needed information from existing data sets and share that data with leaders at all levels to expand their decision space and options necessary to achieve desirable outcomes,” VanHerck said in testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

VanHerck’s team already has what’s known as the “Pathfinder” program, which melds data from a bevy of sensors to create a common and more-informed picture that can be used to detect threats. The data was previously siloed, leading to blindspots.

“It essentially takes and ingests, aggregates, data from multiple systems, data that would in the past have been ... left on the cutting room floor and not analyzed or assessed in a timely manner,” VanHerck said at the virtual Air Warfare Symposium last year. “The Pathfinder program uses machine learning to help us analyze that data from multiple systems, not only military systems, but commercial systems, other government agency systems.”

Despite those gains, Pathfinder is not enough, according to the general.

“What I’m focusing on is a global look, across all domains, infusing data and information,” VanHerck said Monday.

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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