DARPA wants to use AI to make better battlefield decisions

October 2, 2023

The dual-use nature of AI is coming into stark focus as countries push for AI-powered defense and intelligence tech.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has committed millions of dollars to research how AI can be used to make better strategic battlefield decisions.

The project is called Strategic Chaos Engine for Planning, Tactics, Experimentation and Resiliency, or SCEPTER. There’s no word on how much of the funding went towards achieving that acronym.

In DARPA’s budget proposal, the project has the stated aim to “develop machine-generated strategies for strategic planning.” In the fog of war, it’s extremely challenging to collate all available data and then make strategic decisions.

DARPA hopes that SCEPTER will help the US military to “discover novel and surprising Courses of Action (CoAs) by exploring the high complexity state-action space of military engagements at high machine speeds.”

War games have long been a part of military strategy refinement but running these scenarios takes a lot of complicated infrastructure and processing.

With SCEPTER it is hoped that AI models can run multiple scenarios in a more efficient way and produce ‘best guess’ strategies a lot faster. Initially, SCEPTER will be used in red-teaming human-generated plans to check for vulnerabilities.

Once the AI tool is deployed it will “continually evaluate war plans as changes in theater occur” to find “new opportunities and weaknesses and help prevent surprise from competitors.”

One of those ‘competitors’ is China. Despite the US clampdown on the export of AI tech to China, its main rival continues to close the tech gap between the two superpowers.

China’s big focus on AI defense tech

The Chinese PLA has been working on a project similar to SCEPTER. China Daily said the project, called “War Skull”, could “draft operation plans, conduct risk assessments and provide backup plans in advance based on incomplete tactical data.”

The project suffered a setback when it lost its team lead Colonel Feng Yanghe who apparently died in a car accident in July.

Feng studied at the Department of Statistics at Harvard University, which makes you wonder if the US will give thought to adding university courses to its trade restrictions.

The state of China’s AI defense tech capabilities is hard to estimate. What seems clear is that the country spends a lot more on defense AI development, while the US has a greater focus on commercial applications.

Scale AI founder Alexander Wang said, “If you compare as a percentage of their overall military investment, the PLA is spending somewhere between one to two percent of their overall budget into artificial intelligence whereas the DoD is spending somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2 of our budget on AI.”

Geopolitical red-button issues like China’s claim over Taiwan could ultimately be decided by who spends more on developing AI weapons and strategic defense systems. Currently, it seems China aims to top that spending list.

The US Defense Force now seems to be overcoming the reticence some in Congress have about using AI as a weapon. The developments in China make American AI defense tech like SCEPTER and lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) an inevitable, if unpalatable, reality.

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Eugene van der Watt

Eugene comes from an electronic engineering background and loves all things tech. When he takes a break from consuming AI news you'll find him at the snooker table.


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