Air Force Vice Chief Wilson: Weaponizing data is the next big target

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Wilson: “We don’t have an innovation problem. We have an innovation adoption problem."

WASHINGTON — Elon Musk’s Tesla has turned its fleet of electric cars into an information network that is drawing envy from the Pentagon.

Tesla vehicles share data seamlessly in real time, enabling self-driving and also giving human drivers and engineers valuable intelligence about everything from road conditions to component malfunctions.

“Why can’t we do that with our Humvees, our airplanes or our space vehicles?” asked Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson.

The ability to automatically share data that is relevant to users is “what I want to get to,” Wilson said Tuesday in a presentation to the Defense Innovation Board, in Arlington, Va. The panel advises the secretary of defense on technology and business issues.

The military’s big data problems were recognized years ago but fixes are nowhere in sight. The Air Force on any given day collects 22 terabytes of data from aerial and space sensors — the equivalent of five-and-a-half seasons of NFL video or two times the holdings of the entire printed version of the Library of Congress, according to a senior official who briefed the Defense Innovation Board earlier this year.

Air Force leaders speak about a future of “multi-domain command and control” where air, sea, ground and space networks are merged to give commanders a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute picture of the battlefield. They argue that this is how military should weaponize data to outsmart enemies in future wars.

One problem is that a lot of information is locked away in stovepipes and not accessible to the users that need it. The Defense Innovation Board has suggested that artificial intelligence software, cloud computing and machine-learning technologies could be part of the solution.

These issues will come under the portfolio of Maj. Gen. Kimberly Crider, who was recently named Air Force Chief Data Officer. In her most recent job, as mobilization assistant to the undersecretary of the Air Force, one of her responsibilities was to ensure the Air Force builds effective air, space and cyber forces to achieve national defense objectives.

Chris Taylor, the CEO of big data and analytics firm Govini, praised the decision by the Air Force to appoint a chief data officer. Crider is “smart, articulate, and is purpose-driven on helping the U.S. Air Force find enormous efficiencies and break down barriers across the service,” Taylor told SpaceNews.

Wilson argued that ultimately what is needed is a change in culture. “We don’t have an innovation problem. We have an innovation adoption problem,” he said. “We are too risk-averse, too stove-piped and too bureaucratic.” One of the challenges for Crider will be to figure out “how we move data differently.”

Air Force Space Command officials have spoken about data challenges in numerous briefings to space and information technology executives. Space systems are the source of critical military intelligence but networks used by different branches of the military and the intelligence community don’t talk to one another. Analysts for years have complained they lack the ability to turn data into information in a timely manner.

“To regain the upper hand in space and cyberspace, we need to transform our command and control systems, and fully integrate them with air, land and sea military operations,” said an Air Force official who briefed contractors. “We need adaptable, seamless networks that support multi-domain warfare.”