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New focus in military spending can keep Pentagon step ahead of China: expert

The Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act has a new focus on military development of artificial intelligence while also putting guardrails on the new tech.

The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a heavy focus on the continued development of artificial intelligence for the military, an investment that could be pivotal in the continued competition with China.

"I think there are two key areas of the NDAA that point to a great strategic direction for the United States. The first is recognizing the threat China poses in both the physical and the cognitive domain of conflict, in the cold war we are currently in with them and the hot war they may consider in the future. AI, and protecting AI is a crucial part of that strategic calculus," Christopher Alexander, the chief analytics officer of Pioneer Development Group, told Fox News Digital.

Alexander's comments come after President Biden signed the Pentagon spending bill into law last month, the yearly "must pass" legislation that lays out U.S. military spending. 


In the 2024 version of the spending plan, lawmakers made clear the importance of continued AI development for national defense. Perhaps most importantly, the bill created a new Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer Governing Council for the military, which will be in charge of oversight and the responsible development of AI technology for military use.

The new level of oversight was a promising development for some experts, who noted that many unknown dangers could be presented with the continued development of AI.

"It’s good to see Congress taking the AI revolution seriously by creating a new role at the Pentagon responsible for oversight," Jon Schweppe, policy director at American Principles Project, told Fox News Digital. "This is a first step, and obviously more will be needed in the coming months to ensure we are putting needed guardrails into place to prevent the 'runaway AI' problem."

Ziven Havens, the policy director of the Bull Moose Project, echoed similar sentiment, noting that this year's NDAA "contains 149 mentions of artificial intelligence" as the U.S. attempts to balance being a leader in the AI race with safety.


"The most pressing is the creation of the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer Governing Council," Havens told Fox News Digital. "While it is paramount that the U.S. maintains its global leadership of AI, doing so must be done responsibly."

In addition to the creation of new oversight mechanisms, the 2024 NDAA also lays out new AI initiatives for the Pentagon, including a requirement that the secretary of defense create a strategic plan for developing and using AI for defense. 

But the increased focus on AI comes at a time of growing concern over the safety of the technology, something Biden has attempted to address with executive action in 2023.

"The government is in a precarious situation with artificial intelligence. On one hand, it cannot afford to slow down – particularly in the case of defense. On the other hand, as we saw with President Biden's recent executive order, it is making it increasingly difficult for people to develop tech that will allow the defense industry to flourish in the first place," Samuel Mangold-Lenett, a staff editor at The Federalist, told Fox News Digital. "There also remain questions about what the current administrative apparatus considers 'ethical use' and 'data-informed diplomacy,' in and of itself, is risky. We can't defer to machine learning on things that are ultimately issues of humanity. That said, it's good the government is taking AI's defense capabilities more seriously."


While this year's NDAA attempts to address such concerns with formal oversight, it makes clear that the U.S. will continue to charge ahead with recent military developments in AI, including a race toward autonomous weapons that could tilt the battlefield in future conflicts with rivals such as China.

One such weapon that has been in development since 2016 is the XQ-58A Valkyrie experimental aircraft, a stealth platform that can be operated by AI. The Pentagon hopes the plane, which saw its first test flight in 2019, will be able to provide an inexpensive weapon that can also limit human pilot losses or even serve to protect manned aircraft while in flight.

For Alexander, continued development of such systems will be key for the U.S. if it hopes to continue its military advantage over China.

"The greatest deterrent the United States can possess outside of the nuclear arsenal is the ability to make war [prohibitively] expensive for our adversaries," Alexander said. "Autonomous vehicles essentially flip the script on our adversaries and give the U.S. an asymmetric advantage as inexpensive drones and other capabilities have near peer effectiveness against much more expensive, manned platforms."

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