PARIS — France plans to build Europe’s most powerful classified supercomputer to take the lead in artificial intelligence for defense purposes, Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu announced at the Eurosatory defense show here.

The Armed Forces Ministry will make computing time available to the Higher Education Ministry and other government departments, and also allow French defense firms to run AI solutions in a secure and protected environment, according to Lecornu. Lecornu said he’s not providing details on the capacity of the super calculator for AI applications, which is planned for 2025.

France in March announced plans to reallocate €2 billion of funding from the 2024-2030 defense budget to artificial intelligence. Lecornu said AI will be a differentiating factor between countries, creating a break between those left behind and those who manage to hang on.

“The challenge for the French team is obviously to be among those that stand out in this field,” Lecornu said. “When it comes to military AI, we’ll be the European power that’s best prepared, that’s going to devote the most resources to it.”

France, with its army that deploys operationally, will be capable of developing “not theoretical AI but combat AI, and that fundamentally is going to change the game.”

Lecornu said the technology is already being used in the French Army “everywhere,” with the Caesar howitzer using AI to aid with target acquisition by drone, a development resulting from the needs of Ukrainian gunners in their war against Russia, while the Air Force uses artificial intelligence in pilot training.

In terms of capacity sharing with civilian applications, the ministry will use the same model as that used by the French Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s, Lecornu said. The Armed Forces Ministry in March announced the creation of a ministerial agency for artificial intelligence in defense, known by its French acronym Amiad.

“It’s such a revolution, artificial intelligence, in many respects as profound as the atom in the aftermath of World War II,” Lecornu said. “The particularity of our business is that it’s unthinkable to run AI on potentially classified material in a network that isn’t completely secure.”

France isn’t the only country to have identified AI as a military priority. U.S. Department of Defense spending on AI nearly tripled in the one-year period ending in August 2023 to $557 million, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution published in March.

The fastest supercomputer in Europe is Finland’s LUMI, with a performance rating of 380 Petaflop/s, or 380 quadrillion floating-point operations per second, which puts it in fifth position globally, according to the Top500 ranking as of June. Two of the world’s most powerful supercomputers use architecture by Eviden, a unit of French company Atos: Leonardo in Italy and MareNostrum in Spain.

One challenge France faces is retaining skilled engineers, with competition from tech companies such as Google and Apple that offer better salaries, Lecornu said. Retaining talent is a question of sovereignty, and it’s an issue the AI agency will tackle, according to the minister, who didn’t provide details on how that might be achieved.

Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.

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