US Is Moving Too Slowly to Harness Drones and AI, Former SOCOM Commander Says

Tony Thomas says he wishes he’d spent less time growing his command and more time pushing it to embrace new technology.

AUSTIN, Texas — It’s been more than a decade since Adm. Mike Mullen, then-Joint Chiefs chairman, predicted that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be the last manned fighter jet.

Now, years later, the Pentagon needs to do more to move to a robotic force, says a recently retired commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

“I can’t see anything that we couldn’t [or] shouldn’t go unmanned,” Tony Thomas said Wednesday at a conference hosted by SparkCognition, an artificial intelligence startup.

Whether in the air, on the ground, or at sea, robots would take troops out of harm’s way and could give the U.S. military a leg up on its enemies.

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“If you push a force out there that is mostly unmanned, and that’s your attack surface, I think you have a decided advantage and maybe even the best possible deterrent,” said Thomas, who retired earlier this year as a four-star Army general.

In one of his first post-retirement public appearances, Thomas said the military is not embracing artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technology quickly enough. Instead, he said, the military is “iterating on what we already do, what we already have, instead of more aggressively and more creatively thinking what the art of the possible is.” 

There’s a “lack of imagination and a lack of urgency,” he said. Then there’s the military’s “arcane and anachronistic” network infrastructure.

“I don’t want to come off in terms of negative criticism, when the reality is, I am hugely optimistic about the opportunity that we have right now,” Thomas said. “But I am a little bit concerned about the pace and the speed that we’re approaching the challenge.”

Regrets?

Thomas said he wishes he’d spent more time and resources at SOCOM to embrace AI and other new tech instead of increasing the size of the command.

“I was part of the problem,” he said. “I wish I had moved more aggressively in this space.”

Still, as SOCOM commander, Thomas hired a chief data officer to get the command more focused on AI. The command has also used algorithms to predict when its helicopters would need maintenance and repairs, something the rest of the Pentagon has been slowly adopting in recent years

Thomas said he was encouraged by several senior Pentagon leaders pushing for more AI. Just last week, Gen. Dave Goldfein, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, announced his service is planning a $9 billion investment over the next five years to upgrade its networks and move to cloud technology.

At the TimeMachine conference, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said his service is putting “billions of dollars into digitally transforming,” including sending data to a cloud.

“What we hope the offshoot will be is once that data is discoverable, that app developers and microservice developers will be able to produce new and useful capabilities for the military,” he said. “We need a different business model to work with companies that work in that kind of space.

“If we stick with our digital transformation, then I think we will finally open the door for AI at scale and scope and not just do AI glitter across the force,” Roper said.

Day of the Drones

Thomas said the Sept. 14 drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities were “a huge moment.”

“My first reaction that’s still unresolved is: How did we not see that coming? As massive as that attack was and with the billions of dollars we have spent in that geographic space with partners, how did we get surprised?” he said. “I’m more frustrated by the fact that this had precedent.”

About three years ago, Thomas returned to Mosul, a city he calls his “hometown” because he spent more than a year as a one-star general commanding forces there after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This time, Special Forces were helping Iraqi troops to take the historic city back from Islamic State militants.

What happened, he said, is what the Iraqis call the “Day of the Drones.”

No manned enemy aircraft could have gotten anywhere near the fight, thanks to coalition air supremacy. But ISIS used hobby-shop quadcopter drones to drop more than 70 parachute-mounted grenades on Iraqi troops over a 24-hour period, Thomas said. At one point, 12 were launched simultaneously.

“It paralyzed the Iraqis as they were trying to retake the city because we had no answer — an absolutely asymmetric counter by the enemy underneath our air superiority,” Thomas said.

That was a precedent for the Sept. 14 attack — and more may be coming, he said.

Stadiums and large, outdoor concert venues are installing drone-detection systems that can not only spot the small aircraft, but find the people flying them.

“We were really flummoxed by the whole drone experience,” Thomas said. “To me, it’s part of the bigger phenomenon right now, the conflation of technology that is such an opportunity for us.”

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