Outgoing Joint AI Center director calls for rebalancing of Pentagon budget toward new tech

By Justin Doubleday / June 4, 2020 at 3:44 PM

As the Pentagon faces the possibility of declining defense budgets, the outgoing director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center says the Defense Department should shift more funding toward "big bets" on emerging technologies.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, who is stepping down as director of the JAIC this week, said "it is inevitable" that defense budgets will be cut in the wake of nearly $3 trillion spent on coronavirus response efforts.

"So now we're in this idea of a watershed moment," he said during a Mitchell Institute event today. "It's a wakeup call for all of us to say, 'We have to make hard decisions about investing in the future.'"

Last month, Pentagon technology chief Mike Griffin said he is "worried" the federal pandemic spending spree will blow back on new weapons plans, but said "we're all struggling to figure out what the details are going to be."

Today, Shanahan said DOD will have to make some "big decisions" about divesting legacy systems and putting more funding toward emerging technologies.

"What we can't afford to do is do it the way we've been doing it, plowing money into the old and sort of just enough funding on the new to keep it going," he said. "And I'm not saying legacy systems go away overnight, the planes, carriers, fighters, satellites. . . . But it's what's the right mix? What's the balance? Can we make everything better and more efficient and effective by AI-enabled capabilities, by putting 5G onboard?"

The JAIC, which is under the authority of DOD's chief information officer, is requesting a $290 million budget in fiscal year 2021, an increase above the $242 million allocated for the center this year. Shanahan said he was "proud" of how the center, established just two years ago, now has a "predictable funding profile" within the Pentagon at $1.6 billion over the next five years.

The three-star advocated for DOD to shift from an "industrial age, hardware driven force" to one based on software capabilities.

"I think what we’re seeing as we take the software mindset, it will be less of the legacy and we put some big bets down," Shanahan said. "And they're big bets, they're not risk-free bets. But when we look at China and Russia, and especially China where they're investing, we can't afford to do it any other way. We've got to build toward that AI-enabled force of the future, or I think we have an unacceptably high risk of losing, and we're not used to doing that."