WASHINGTON – Autonomous and unmanned technologies will help transform how the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Command manage threats, the head of both defense agencies told Congress.

In the face of rapidly evolving security threats, NORTHCOM and NORAD must embrace “future-type systems,” which may already sound like science fiction, Air Force Gen. Glenn Van Herk said on March 23, 2010.

“I think the future of national defense is very different than what we see today,” he said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on fiscal 2024 spending. It may include autonomous platforms, airborne platforms, maritime platforms, unmanned platforms with domain-aware sensors, and motion-based and passive impactors.

Autonomous and unmanned systems can be maintained and monitored for long periods of time, providing a constant feed of information to Vanherk and his successors that can be analyzed for signs of external attack. They can also be stationed in areas deemed too dangerous or complex, extending U.S. defenses to prevent troops from being physically present.

NorthCom is responsible for protecting the continental US and the surrounding area. NORAD combines US and Canadian efforts to control and protect North American airspace. The teams were closely involved in the investigation of the Chinese spy balloon that floated in various states earlier this year.

The US military is pushing for autonomy, artificial intelligence and unmanned systems such as remotely operated drones.

The Navy’s recent “exploration plan,” a strategic-vision-style document, for example, includes a list of future ships that includes about 373 manned ships and 150 unmanned ships. The Army and Air Force are also studying how to augment their existing manpower.

“Our commands need your continued support to exceed the rapid advances made by our competitors,” VanHerk said Thursday. The Pentagon’s fiscal 2024 budget outline includes $1.8 billion for AI.

The general’s comments come a year after he told reporters that NORTHCOM and NORAD lack the digital resources they need to do their jobs. The list of previously unfunded priorities includes a request for nearly $30 million to purchase information technology equipment and facilitate infrastructure for AI and machine learning at the Joint Operations Center.

“My assessment today is that I don’t have what I need, as far as artificial intelligence and machine learning, I leave the decision-making room to the president, the defense secretary, the chief of the Canadian armed forces, the defense minister and the prime minister in Canada,” VanHerk said at an April 2022 defense secretaries’ group event.

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration – Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development – for a daily newspaper published in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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