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November 18, 2022

Air Force Looks to AI to Help Maintain Bombers, ICBMs


The United States Air Force Global Strike Command will deploy artificial intelligence technology in a bid to increase the reliability of its nuclear bombers and ICBMs as part of an expansion of its partnership with Virtualitics, a provider of AI and data exploration software and services.

From its headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, the Global Strike Command oversees the nation’s fleet of nuclear-capable strategic bombers, including the B-1B Lancer, B-2 Spirit, and the B-52 Stratofortress bombers, as well as three missile wings of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The Global Strike Command was created in 2008 as major command of the USAF, and the follow-on to the Strategic Air Command, following a pair of incidents in which nuclear warheads and vehicle assemblies were mistakenly loaded onto planes. Now the entirety of Air Force’s nuclear arsenal (which represents two-thirds of the U.S. military’s total nuclear arsenal) are handled through Global Strike Command.

Maintaining mission-readiness and the capability to project power is at the heart of all US military branches, and the Global Strike Command is no different. But with a fleet of aging and sophisticated aircraft and the need to manage nuclear materiel–not to mention the strategic nature of the mission–ensuring mission-readiness takes on a unique flavor for the Global Strike Command.

The Global Strike Command’s “mission-capable” rate is the principle metric that indicates the health and readiness of an aircraft fleet. The USAF, along with other military branches, has been trying to improve this metric for years, but in fact has been losing ground.

A 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office highlighted major readiness issues with aircraft across the entire military. None of the three bombers that make up the air component of the nuclear triad had a passing grade. The B-2 Spirit–a relative baby with only 25 years of service for the fleet–met the mission capable rate six out of 11 years from 2011 to 2021. The B-52, which the USAF started flying in 1954, met the mark for three of the 11 years, while the B-1B, which entered service in 1986, only met it once.

From bottom to top, the B-2, B-1B, and B-52 fly in formation over the Sierra Nevada (image courtesy USAF)

Nearly all aircraft were tagged by the GAO report as failing the mission. “We looked at 49 types of military aircraft and found that only four types met their annual mission readiness goals from FY 2011 through FY 2021–an overall decline over time,” the GAO wrote. The GAO report highlighted problems with the B-1B, including unscheduled maintenance and a shortage of and delay in acquiring spare parts that worsens a maintenance backlog, according to a 2020 article in the Airforce Times.

Virtualitics began its relationship with the Global Strike Command three years ago under a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract, and the relationship has evolved since then. This week, the Pasadena, California company announced that it will move forward with an expansion of the partnership that will see the construction of a center of excellence with the Global Strike Command as part of a plan to expand the use of AI.

The goal is to leverage AI’s predictive capability to increase the availability of aircraft and overall mission readiness of the ICBM fleet. To that end, Virtualitics will assist the Global Strike Command in specific areas, including predictive maintenance, inventory management, supply chain optimization, and manpower resource allocation.

Virtualitics tells Datanami that it will deliver dashboards and analysis tools that the USAF airmen will use directly. “We provide training for analysts who want to learn more about developing and analyzing with the platform, but no training is required for system usage,” the company says.

The system will recommend which parts should be replaced, and will provide “clear written explanations of why the algorithm recommends those parts be replaced,” the company says. “The models will also account for supply chain implications of these recommendations and the schedule constraints of the maintainers, thereby optimizing these recommendations.”

Predictive maintenance will be gamechanger for commanders on the ground keeping these aircraft and ICBMs ready to do the job, said Maj. General Jeff Taliaferro, U.S. Air Force (Ret).

“Virtualitics makes it possible for not only improved day-to-day decisions but even more importantly deployment decisions,” Taliaferro said in a press release. “Knowing in advance an aircraft will need a major repair before deployment will enable much better decisions that could save missions and millions of taxpayer dollars.”

Virtualitics develops an AI platform called Intelligent Exploration that uses AI and machine learning to make sense of data, including spotting correlations and anomalies. The software has a visualization component and also uses “plain language” explanations to help users understand what it’s doing. The company has customers in life sciences, technology, financial services, and government.

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