AI in Space and its Future Use in Warfare

Shutterstock | KaimDH

Artificial intelligence (AI) has graduated from the hype stage of the last decade and its use cases are now well documented, spanning a wide range from healthcare applications to autonomous vehicles – but its introduction to warfare will likely be the deciding factor in who will dominate the information age.

Today, AI machine learning algorithms support a whole host of media and web-based consumer platforms. Much like the aviation and nuclear technologies adopted in decades past, AI techniques are relatively neutral; however, properly harnessed AI technology will afford an asymmetric advantage that advances and adapts far more quickly than previous technologies. Since AI is largely software running on commercial processors it doesn’t require the decade long development cycles of nuclear missiles or bombers to deploy or even upgrade. As such, whichever nation best adapts this technology to its military – especially in space – will open new frontiers in innovation and determine the winners and losers.

The US Army has anticipated this impending AI disruption and has moved quickly to stand up efforts like Project Linchpin to construct the infrastructure and environment necessary to proliferate AI technology across its intelligence, cyber, and electronic warfare communities. Meanwhile, the Air Force is also embarking on several projects, many oriented towards automation of tasks routinely done by soldiers and airman. Even the Pentagon has recognized the importance of AI and machine learning, launching the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office to emphasize critical technologies and keep pace with aggressive international competitors.

However, it should come as no surprise that China anticipated this advantage sooner than the US and is at the forefront of adoption. Chinese dominance in AI is imminent. The Chinese government has made enormous investments in this area (much more than Western countries) and is the current leader in AI publications and research patents globally.

Meanwhile, China’s ambitions in space are no longer a secret – the country is now on a trajectory to surpass the US in the next decade. Massive Chinese investments in AI, combined with parallel funding directed to eclipse US dominance in the space domain, is highly alarming. And if we adjust for the major labor price differential between the US and China, we are staring at a tsunami.

The speed, range, and flexibility afforded by AI and machine learning gives those on orbit who wield it an unprecedented competitive edge. The advantage of AI in space warfare, for both on-orbit and in-ground systems, is that AI algorithms continuously learn and adapt as they operate, and the algorithms themselves can be upgraded as often as needed, to address or escalate a conflict.

I recently caught up with two AI leaders in the space industry, Kunal Mehra of SSCI and Logan Jones of Spark Cognition who are both are cautiously optimistic about the potential of AI/ML technology in space.

Kunal Mehra is the President of SSCI in Boston – a company with decades of experience in the defense sector, especially in software and algorithm development. He tells me that such critical technologies, “promise rapid decision speeds, dramatically improved systems collaboration, and enhanced resiliency.” The risk, in his view, is that our leadership only sees it as a passing tech trend, rather than a necessary technology to advance and rapidly exploit, which runs counter to the Chinese strategy.

Logan Jones, President of Spark Cognition Government Systems (SGS) based in Austin is also optimistic about intelligence utilization at the edge to enable smart constellations, something his firm is specializing in. He does caution, however, that the cyber battle in space will never end: “Model drift, cyber-attacks, spoofing, and even compute constraints will have to be continuously monitored properly, too.” Like electronic warfare countermeasures during the Cold War, AI is truly the next frontier where we must continuously innovate or succumb to rival world powers.

But what does this mean for the second Space Race, or more specifically, America’s repositioning to win it? Today’s Space Force leadership must devote a much higher fraction of its RD towards developing the AI and machine learning software its Guardians will need at their fingertips to win this hotly contested domain. The resources to do so can come from the savings as it transitions to lower cost space architectures leveraging privately funded and commercially developed launch services, satellites, sensors, and ground infrastructure.

The full impact of AI on national security has yet to be realized, but its dramatic effects are coming much faster than we think. The decision speed of space warfare is quickly moving from hours to milliseconds. Today’s space operations on-orbit and in-ground operations centers must transition to autonomy to ensure Space Force Guardians develop and deploy the right AI systems to ensure a free and safe space domain for tomorrow.

There are many more questions than answers at this point, because as Mehra alluded, few people understand how AI actually works let alone how it should be applied. Nevertheless, the rapid evolution to autonomous operations is here for commercial companies, and like other technologies of the past that profoundly changed how we think of warfare, we must harness its potential or be left behind. China is advancing in this area at an unprecedented pace, unencumbered by the inertia and scar tissue of the Cold War. Leading this revolution in space is essential to maintaining our edge over technologically savvy foreign adversaries, and will ultimately decide the winners of the second Space Race.