The AI Advantage for National Security Space

As AI Continues to Evolve, so Does its Relevance to National Security Space

The relationship between artificial intelligence (AI) and the military came into the fore in 2017 with the launch of Project MAVEN, the Department of Defense’s AI tool intended to process imagery and full-motion drone footage to automatically detect potential threats. Since then, as AI technology has developed at an exponential rate, so has its relevance to accomplishing national security objectives. This particularly rings true in the space domain, where as the first fully “digital service,” the U.S. Space Force recognizes the importance of embracing emerging technologies like AI.  

“From a national security space standpoint, AI has many important applications,” according to Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Kim Crider, USSF’s first Chief Technology Innovation Officer. “AI is key to helping decision-makers understand what is happening in the space domain. Similar to the way Project MAVEN solves a critical need of more quickly processing intelligence information about rapid changes in terrestrial domain to accelerate understanding of threats in that domain, the use of AI and machine learning in the space domain helps space operators more rapidly discern what is happening in space, and the potential threats to space-based assets that reside there.”   

“The advantage AI brings to space domain awareness is particularly stark when you think about the fact that space is incredibly vast, and our human understanding of it is largely enabled by the processing of data we receive from it,” Crider continues. “The need to maintain as complete an understanding as possible of the increasing number of space objects, and what they are doing has direct implications on national security–given the growing congested and contested nature of that domain of operations, which we see extending into the cislunar environment.”

Top officials at the U.S. Space Command agree. U.S. Army GEN James Dickinson, Commander, U.S. Space Command, has stressed the value of AI in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission sets within the space domain, and Lt. Gen. John Shaw, U.S. Space Command’s deputy commander has emphasized its relevance in maintaining US advantages in space.  Moreover, these and other DoD officials warn that given the degree of counter-space threats that have increased in recent years, failure to actively leverage AI for our advantage could allow foreign adversaries the upper hand. 

“We are not going to be the only ones trying to use artificial intelligence on these problems and challenges,” Shaw said. “We will have adversaries and competitors that will be doing the same. All the more reason why we need to embrace it, understand it and use it as effectively and as quickly as we can to ensure that we stay ahead.” 

Budget Investments in AI Capability

From a budgetary standpoint, the Department of Defense continues to increase investment in AI capability. President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal requested more than $1.8 billion for the adoption and delivery of AI, which was already a $600 million boost compared to the $1.2 billion appropriated in 2023. But the US Senate Committee on Appropriations is taking AI investment a step further, recently passing the Fiscal Year 2024 Defense Appropriations Bill that allocates $141 million more than the original $1.8 billion the President requested earlier this year. While the bill has yet to receive final Congressional approval, its current figures reflect the urgency with which we must invest in AI technologies.

That is because U.S. adversaries are also investing in AI. In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China established its Strategic Support Force (SSF) to modernize the PLA with new technologies. According to researchers at the Brookings Institute, the SSF is designed to strategically leverage AI for China’s space, cyberspace and joint military operations. China’s emphasis on developing AI technologies was further reinforced in recent testimony given to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Information Technologies and Innovation. During the hearing, Alexandr Wang, the CEO of Scale AI, warned Congress that China is spending three times as much as the U.S. for developing AI technologies. 

While traditionally lagging in spending for artificial intelligence development, Russia also said it was entering the technological arms race for AI in 2017. Since then, Russia has openly discussed developing military AI capabilities. This includes the 2021 announcement that the Russian Ministry of Defense would form an Artificial Intelligence Department to develop AI-enabled weaponry. Furthermore, Russia’s invasion into Ukraine in 2022 has drawn attention to the role AI will have in current and future military conflicts.

These concerns related to global adversaries’ investment in AI technology is further reflected in the U.S. Space Force’s budget, specifically. For the Fiscal Year 2024, the USSF requested $30 billion, a $3.9 billion increase from 2023. Moreover, 60% of their total budget request is tabbed for research and development purposes.

With this investment, the USSF can and should continue to tap into the immense amount of innovation coming from the commercial industry. Private companies are leading the way by providing $450 billion per year to the global space industry, potentially scaling to $1 trillion per year by 2040. These projections are according to the U.S. Space Command’s Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) for Space Reverse Industry Day presentation in May of 2023. 

Leveraging Commercial Innovation for AI Adoption

AI has significant implications as it relates to the space domain awareness (SDA) mission, including deep space object detection, spectral exploitation for satellite recognition, automation of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) imaging and satellite pointing angle estimation. As the primary mission for identifying, characterizing and understanding threats to the space operation, SDA remains and will continue to be the foundational element to the Joint Force operation protecting our nation.

In order to maximize the capabilities of AI while minimizing its risks, the U.S. military is continuing its call for support from the commercial sector.

“There is a great deal of valuable innovation coming from the commercial sector to help our military warfighters,” Crider said. “Commercial industry is applying AI technologies in new, innovative ways to solve problems and augment human decision-making. That’s why national security space leaders recognize that an opportunity exists to leverage these technologies for domain awareness and other mission-specific applications.”  

One such commercial entrant is Colorado-based True Anomaly, which recently unveiled plans for its Jackal spacecraft that it has dubbed an autonomous orbital vehicle (AOV). The company plans to launch its first two Jackal AOVs in February 2024, followed by on-orbit demonstrations of advanced AI-assisted mission and trajectory planning.

“The use of AI in the space domain will have to be tested, demonstrated, and proven just as UAVs and game-changing AI platforms that assist pilots in the cockpit were for the air domain,” said True Anomaly co-founder and CEO Even Rogers. “True Anomaly looks forward to demonstrating responsible, safe and precise norms of behavior for AI in space that illuminate the art of the possible for how AI technology can also serve as a force multiplier for space operators.”

Additional AI Applications for the Space-Based Mission

One additional mission-specific application for AI includes combating electromagnetic interference (EMI) that can inhibit Joint Force operations. By automating reference signals for satellite pairing, as much as 1-12 hours typically spent navigating multiple websites and sources for this purpose would be saved. This would enable greater efficiency for both Guardians and the systems they are operating. 

AI and ML planning tools can also support anomaly detection, where routine telemetry can predict potential aborts of aging satellite thrusters and take corrective actions without user impact. These tools would decrease orbital analysts’ workload and enable preventative maintenance to sustain the operational lifeline of satellites.

AI is further capable of increasing the classification throughput and repeatability of data streams by automating the flight-data characterization process. This use-case for AI has the potential to reduce the manual processing of data streams to less than an hour, which would provide more time for data analysis and observation.

Another mission set includes the detection of anomalous satellite maneuvers, which would increase space domain awareness on high-priority Resident Space Objects (RSOs). This would further reduce the workload of Guardians by improving anomaly detection in a skew-proof classification manner. 

A Responsible Approach to Emerging Technologies

Despite the prospective benefits of AI technology within the space domain and across the whole national security apparatus, DoD officials are still exercising caution to ensure the technology has time to develop and mature before being fully adopted.

“As the government is actively asking for this technology, we need to have responsible use of AI,” Crider said. “We need to be thinking about how AI technology is being developed and tested before it’s employed. What are these algorithms that are being developed? What verification has this AI gone through so we understand how it’s deriving insights from the information it’s receiving? How do we know that the algorithm is continually being tuned over time, so that it doesn’t start to skew its results and just zero in on one specific solution from a limited data set?”

That is why an infrastructure must be put in place to rapidly assess AI models and their data. The trustworthiness of AI is commonly identified as one of the biggest barriers to its broader adoption. Researchers at Caltech and other academic institutions have reinforced this point with a call for clearer instructions and greater transparency in AI development, so as to avoid inefficiencies, inaccuracies, biases and uncertainty in its algorithms. 

As AI continues to evolve, so will its relevance to the national security space mission. The DoD has a unique opportunity to leverage commercial capabilities to develop secure and reliable AI systems for the defense of the nation. With continued investment, collaboration with the private sector and an emphasis on assuring trustworthiness in AI solutions implementation, the Space Force can capitalize on the massive potential AI has for strengthening the national security space mission and drive advantage for the joint military operations of the future.

About Elara Nova:

Elara Nova is a global consultancy firm specifically focused on space to help bridge the gap between commercial and military space when it comes to integrating emerging technologies like AI to solve our nation’s toughest challenges.