Top Air Force officials consider new leadership styles as artificial intelligence takes root

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The advent of artificial intelligence in defense is causing a reassessment of decades-old military leadership traditions, top air force officials from around the world told a gathering here earlier this month.

The Dubai Air Chiefs Conference, or DIACC, on November 12, which kicked off this year’s iteration of the Dubai Air Show, explored the fundamental changes that aviators should expect as a result of artificial intelligence infiltrating their professions.

“The traditional style of leadership is seen as somewhat archaic or outdated and understandably so,” said Brig. General Azzan Ali A. Al Nuaimi, commander of the UAE Air Warfare and Missile Center, told the audience. “A top-down approach or hierarchy-based decision-making is no longer appropriate for an operational environment where information is more fluid and fast,” he added.

Armed forces around the world are embracing the promise of artificial intelligence in military tasks. The level of sophistication of the technologies varies widely, from speeding up rotational data analysis tasks that previously took days or weeks for humans to creating new courses of action on the battlefield based on a huge amount of contextual data.

Sophisticated AI algorithms run the risk of making spam calls, especially when it comes to targeting and killing. This fear has prompted leaders to keep people in the loop for sensitive tasks. “It is key to strike a balance between trusting AI and human decision-making,” said Al Nuaimi.

Air Vice Chief Glenn Braz, who manages readiness for the Australian Air Force, argued the speed of future conflicts meant command and control networks needed to keep pace.

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“Artificial intelligence has increased the space and pace of warfare,” he said. “There will be more needs to delegate decision-making in a fast-paced, disconnected environment.”

Italian Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Luca Goretti struck a similar chord, arguing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrated the need to prize connectivity above all else.

“If you can manage the data, you win. If you can’t manage it or process it, you lose,” he said. “If you keep a piece of information to yourself, you lose. The war in Ukraine taught us the need for this, to share data.”

While the consensus among top officers here has been to favor shorter chains of command to accommodate the next generation of AI in the military, other experts believe there is another side to the argument.

“While there may be some compression of chains of command due to the increased potential speed of decision-making supported by artificial intelligence, this will not always be the case,” said retired Australian Army General Mick Ryan. “Sometimes we might use it to slow down our decision-making so we can be more strategic in our thinking.”

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is Defense News’ Europe correspondent. It covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in aviation reporting. Its headquarters are in Milan, Italy.

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