[Column] How not to keep fighting yesterday’s war

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[Column] How not to keep fighting yesterday’s war

Kim Min-seok

The author is an editorial writer and senior researcher at the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo. 

The buzzwords at the Ministry of National Defense last month were “Defense Innovation 4.0” aimed at transforming our military into an AI-based, cutting-edge armed force. The ministry completed the “Basic Plans for Defense Innovation 4.0” — a roadmap to achieve the ambitious goal — in December by holding a number of meetings and seminars with military experts and civilian brains on science and technology.
The army, navy, air force and marines are all busy drawing up their basic strategies and plans to keep pace with the defense ministry’s outline for defense reform. The presidential office will set up a national defense innovation committee chaired by President Yoon Suk Yeol to help spur the bold makeover of the military.
Keywords of defense innovation 4.0 are AI, big data, machine learning (ML), robots, drones, autonomous systems, lasers, cyber and electromagnetic waves. Such core technologies of the fourth industrial revolution are already widely used in the civilian world, as seen in self-driving cars, robot vacuum cleaners and delivery drones.
But these areas are still unfamiliar to the military due to their steadfast adherence to conventional weapons, like tanks, field artillery and fighter jets. If defense innovation accelerates, military strategies, operations, types of troops, personnel structures and logistics support systems built over the past decades must change dramatically. But accommodating such unfamiliar systems poses many challenges to the armed forces.
The infiltration of North Korean drones into our airspace over Gyeonggi on Dec. 26 shows well the weaknesses of our “muscular” military power. North Korea has flown its unmanned aerial vehicles across the border on 12 occasions since 2014. But our military’s preparedness and responses have not changed much.
On December 26, our military tried to intercept the five North Korean drones with even-faster fighter jets. But the jets could hardly shoot down small drones with machine guns. The army’s M61 Vulcan cannon mounted on our attack helicopters fired 100 rounds at the drones, but failed to bring them down. The Vulcan’s effective shooting range is only 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles). Moreover, the attack choppers had to be careful not harm civilians on the ground. As a result, our military could not shoot down any of the five drones that entered our airspace in the final week of 2022.

If you want to catch a fly, you need a flyswatter, not a sword. In November, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) announced a plan to develop the “K-jammer,” our own anti-drone jamming system, by 2026 after wasting eight years. Why does it take four years to develop the jammer even when the private sector already has such technology?

The defense ministry vowed to exponentially strengthen our military’s capability to cope with North Korea’s nuclear and missile attacks, advance our military strategy, improve operation concepts, acquire AI-based high-tech forces, reform our military structure and innovate military education and training in three stages by the 2040s through the defense innovation.
But our military leadership is confused over where to start the innovation. Even a retired general who served as head of the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) pointed to difficulties given “our current technology and reality.” It could take longer unless the country has all the technologies needed for the reform. In fact, it took up to nine years for the U.S. to draw up basic plans for the dramatic transformation of its military into a future-oriented force.

But AI and unmanned systems already invade our daily lives. Our military cannot shun them, either. Worse, our current military system cannot be maintained if the number of our soldiers shrinks to less than 400,000 from the current 600,000 by 2035 due to the demographic cliff. Rebuilding our combat capabilities based on AI and unmanned systems is unavoidable. The longer the delay in innovation, the weaker our military capabilities and the more budget we need.

The most important technology for defense innovation is AI. AI-based image sensing, speech interpretation, autonomous driving and game play will all be applied to combat, operations, information and logistics support. But none of them are perfected yet. The RAND Corporation says that computers are better than humans in image sensing, but still make mistakes. That poses a serious problem in combat as they cannot tell friend from foe. That’s why the military wants to start with a combined system of manned and unmanned technologies.

AI’s speech interpretation ability is key to communication between humans and unmanned systems. The ability has developed to the level of summarizing or understanding emotional expression thanks to the help from deep neural network (DNN). But it takes long for the DNN to decipher the meaning of new data or expressions. Self-driving and game play by AI are being perfected, but questions still remain over safety.

That’s not all. Construction of intelligent manned-and-unmanned combat system requires supercomputers capable of large-volume calculations because of a number of parameters involved so that AI can study big data and think just like humans. But management of big data is impossible under our current military security system. The military simply destroys huge data collected from large military drills citing security.

In the meantime, the United States, China, Russia and the UK are all mobilizing their national resources to innovate their military. As most of the technologies are held by universities, institution and IT companies, those governments are cementing their networks with the civilian sector.

For instance, the U.S. Army placed the A-AITF, a unit in charge of AI, at Carnegie Melon University, a leader in the AI field. The U.S. Army decided to apply Google Cloud to its computer networks. The Army Future Command made contracts with 4,500 firms to venture new technology businesses. But in Korea, due to draconian security regulations and strange defense procurement systems, questions arise over whether our military really can take advantage of the technological strides the private sector made.

The biggest obstacle to the Defense Innovation 4.0 is the Defense Business Act focused on preventing corruption. No matter how epochal new ideas and technologies the civilian sector has, it takes more than 10 years to develop new weapons due to complicated approval system. As a result, new weapons become old ones once they are produced.

Some may point to the recent popularity of so-called K-defense industry. But it could be a result of the composure of the European defense industry after a long peace in the continent, except for the Ukraine war. Whether K-defense will continue to succeed remains to be seen.

The rapid procurement system the DAPA introduced to aggressively take advantage of the cutting-edge technologies needed to innovate our military is going in the wrong direction. After benchmarking the U.S. system, the DAPA seeks to shorten the usual 10 to 15 years for new weapons development to 5 to-6 years.

After being introduced in 2020, the “fast-track” system implemented 30 projects — including the development of a hand-held anti-drone gun and kamikaze drones — with a 67.4-billion-won ($54.1-million) budget, but none has been successful yet due to the red tape in bureaucracy. When DAPA introduced the rapid acquisition system, it told companies that it will select one through a bidding process, determine the quantity after a pilot test, and strike a contract with the company through a “private contract.”

But the DAPA did not sign a contract with the company which already passed a pilot test. Instead, the agency invited a group of new companies for another bidding competition for fear of the possible audit and investigation by the government in case it signed a private contract with a bidder. That only helps prolong the bidding process and cost more money for bidders.

Many stumbling blocks are scattered here and there in the journey to the defense innovation. The government must remove them first. Otherwise, our military will have to shoot down North Korean drones with fighter jets over and over.
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