The U.S. Army is a large organization with many stakeholders, moving parts, and money inflows and outflows. One could say it’s not too different from a large private sector company. It faces many of the same stressors of a large private sector company as well, including deciding how to allocate its budget.
In recent years, the Army turned to artificial intelligence (AI) to help tackle budget allocation. The challenge was to find a solution for contracting officers trying to accurately predict which contracts were most likely to end up underspending their funding. An accurate prediction would enable them to reallocate those funds to other high-priority projects. Deobligation, the process of shifting funding away from the contracts that don’t need it, was ripe for disruption.
How They Did It
The Army’s HQ Analytics Lab (HAL) and Deep Green OBT (Office of Business Transformation) initiatives joined forces to create the Unliquidated Obligation (ULO) project. AI models were deployed into the Army Vantage Platform — a data analytics platform used across the Army for real-time, data-driven decision-making. A recent report from DataRobot, one of the AI platforms powering ULO, mentioned some of the results:
- During fiscal year 2020, the Army Contracting Command (ACC) was able to successfully deobligate more than $3.3 billion in funding as a result of their AI integration, versus roughly $2.0 – $2.6 billion in previous years.
- The project set the foundation for further AI integration and other advanced financial analytics tools that will continue to drive value.
- The project also slashed thousands of staff hours by automating the deobligation process. It allows the contract officers across the Army Contracting Command to rapidly identify not only how much money is outstanding on contracts, but also when they expire. “Tasks that took several days before Army Vantage now take minutes, allowing analysts to focus on advanced analytics that will further improve the outcomes that contracting provides for the Army,” says Kevin Foster, operations research analyst and chief of the data analytics division at the ACC.
Other AI Army Uses
The Army faces the same issues as any large organization: antiquated data systems with limited interoperability, the growing pains of digital transformation, and money leaking out of cracks that humans can no longer see.
“One of our consistent issues within Army financial management is caused by our large portfolio of legacy systems executing hundreds of thousands of transactions per week with one another,” said Jonathan Moak, the Army’s principal deputy assistant secretary for financial management and comptroller within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Financial Management and Comptroller. “Incorrect information is often generated or reflected in a system during these constant transactions, which can create the issue called an unmatched transaction.”
Solving these issues is extremely important for the Army, an organization that needs rapid data-driven decision-making to save not just money, but human lives. Informed decision-making has always been at the forefront of effective military leadership, and AI is finally being involved in that process.
Just as data modernization makes private-sector firms competitive, it also keeps governments competitive. AI has played an increasingly important role in political arenas, including deepfakes, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and autonomous robotics used as weapons.
While the potential threats it can generate might be less obvious than that of nuclear weapons, AI is yet another tool that governments can wield for military power. There is an obvious incentive to be at the forefront of technological developments in the field, and it’s important to enforce safety and ethics throughout the journey of AI integration.
“AI as a core tenet of defense modernization,” said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael S. Groen, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. “We’ve created positive momentum for AI, and we continue to build on that now. But now comes the real critical test in any transformation. The hardest part is institutional change and change management of the workforce and practices and processes that drive a business. This step will not be easy, even within the Department of Defense, but it’s foundational to our competitive success, our accountability, and our affordability,” he said. “We have a generational opportunity here for AI to be our future. We must act now. We need to start putting these pieces into place now.” You can learn more about the other AI projects in the Department of Defense here.
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