Pentagon’s Top Spy Agency Turns To AI for Targeting and Operations Planning

By Raul Diego

Source

Reminiscent of the 1983 sci-fi classic WarGames, the DIA’s new MARS program aims to create a system that uses AI to scour volumes of foreign intelligence and make decisions on how to act on it.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is getting ready for the “next battlefield” and counting on the expertise of private concerns, like Booz Allen Hamilton, to implement what it calls Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System, or MARS for short. MARS is a critical data management system for “military targeting” and operation planning.

MARS is currently the DIA’s top priority, and according to DIA director Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., the aim is to replicate “the commercial Internet that everybody uses every day,” with the added functionality of providing a “foundational intelligence picture […] at speed and at scale.”

Terry Busch, chief of DIA’s integrated analysis and methodologies division, highlights the difference between the MARS program he manages and the old “stovepipe” data management technologies it is meant to replace: “What comes out of MARS at the end is not data, it’s analysis. It’s finished intelligence.”

Which kind of intelligence, specifically, will be assessed dynamically by the machine’s algorithms in a new kind of database management system using AI functionality. It will revolutionize the way data is received and acted-upon. As it scours and collects vast datasets and volumes of foreign intelligence that support U.S. military operations around the world, MARS will be equipped to handle both large amounts of data, like the storage-intensive images and videos collected by the National Reconnaissance Office and also analyze the information to produce actionable leads in the battlefield.

It is nothing less than the 1983 sci-fi classic “WarGames” come to life. A ‘machine’ that decides when to go to war based on the information it is fed. In the movie, a military drill of a surprise nuclear attack on the United States accidentally goes live after a hacker, played by Matthew Broderick, “unwittingly” puts the world on the brink of nuclear war.

MARS program manager Terry Busch doesn’t discount the possibility. “On the machine side,” Busch stated, “we have experienced confirmation bias in big data,” adding that it was a “real concern” given that they’ve had “the machine retrain itself to error”.

COVID-19, however, has given the top military intelligence department the opportunity to “prove [its] ability to deliver the capabilities of MARS”, as DIA chief of Staff, John Sawyer, said at a National Security Summit that concluded Friday. The “assumptions about the nature of our work,” he claims were challenged during the pandemic, were especially fruitful in regards to the MARS program, which can now benefit from a new modality of military intelligence propagation that will be “the future of how we are going to understand fighting”.

Privatizing war

The massive scope of the DIA’s database retooling can be glimpsed by the size of the multiple-award contract it announced in August of last year, totaling over $17 Billion in contracts to 16 different companies, from large and established military contractors to startups. The largest “individual task orders” went to companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, the long-time private military intelligence-gathering operation that once employed Edward Snowden, and the far less known – but far more significant – Harold Thomas Martin III, who pled guilty in 2019 of stealing classified material pertaining to NSA “source code to break into computer systems of adversaries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.”

In September 2019, Booz Allen Hamilton received a $90 Million contract to deliver “services for the production, dissemination, and tracking of DIA’s finished intelligence products, including the development and maintenance of applications and tools used to perform the mission.” Other private defense contractors include aerospace giant BAE Systems, Leidos (formerly Science Applications International Corporation, SAIC), and Vencore.

At the two-day intelligence summit, Sawyer alluded to the importance of the private sector in this endeavor, stating that “We have to rely on our partners and industry,” and “have them help us understand the art of the possible and the cutting-edge technology that is out there and to provide the expertise that will allow us to maintain our qualitative edge.”

This is not a drill

The rationale behind prioritizing the overhaul of the DIA’s data management system, a system that is tasked with the “delivery of intelligence to military planners, international partners and analysts,” is the “re-emergence” of “great powers.,” according to the agency. In addition, the DIA claims that everything “the nation knows about adversaries’ capabilities, tactics and military doctrine” is no longer enough in a “more competitive, dynamic and dangerous” global environment.

Touted by the DIA as a “decision advantage for the 21st century”, MARS, represents a perilous use of artificial intelligence, and program manager Busch’s aforementioned claims regarding “finished intelligence” should be noted, again, as advances in cloud computing will allow MARS to simulate “courses of action, allowing operators to quickly and fully grasp the likely effects of proposed activities or movements.”

WarGames ends like you’d expect a Hollywood movie to end, with all the built-up suspense and danger is resolved by the hero before the credits start rolling. In the film, the human wins and manages to get WOPR, the artificial intelligence machine, to relinquish control of the nuclear trigger and avert a nuclear conflagration. The acronym chosen for its real-life manifestation, named after the Roman god of war, should remind us that real life isn’t like the movies.

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