Air Force turns to AI to help sustain bombers and ICBMs

Air Force turns to AI to help sustain bombers and ICBMs


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

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

Global Strike Command was established in 2008 as a major USAF command, and successor to Strategic Air Command, following two incidents in which nuclear warheads and vehicle sets were mistakenly loaded into planes. Now, the entire Air Force nuclear arsenal (which represents two-thirds of the total US military nuclear arsenal) is managed by Global Strike Command.

Maintaining mission readiness and the ability to project power is at the heart of all US military branches, and Global Strike Command is no different. But with a fleet of aging, 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 Global Strike Command.

Global Strike Command’s “Mission Capability” rating is the primary 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 it is losing ground.

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

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

Almost all of the aircraft were labeled by the GAO report as having failed the mission. “We examined 49 types of military aircraft and found that only four types met their annual mission readiness goals from fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2021 – an overall decline over time,” the GAO wrote. . The GAO report highlighted issues with the B-1B, including unscheduled maintenance and a shortage and delay in procuring spare parts that compounds a maintenance backlog, according to a 2020 article in the air force time.

Virtualitics began its relationship with 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, Calif.-based company announced it will move forward with an expansion of the partnership that will see the construction of a Center of Excellence with Global Strike Command as part of a plan to to expand the use of AI.

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

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

The system will recommend parts for replacement and provide “clear written explanations of why the algorithm recommends replacing those parts,” the company says. “The models will also take into account the supply chain implications of these recommendations and maintainer schedule constraints, thereby optimizing these recommendations.”

Predictive maintenance will be a game-changer for ground commanders in keeping those planes and ICBMs ready to get the job done, said Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, U.S. Air Force (Ret).

“Virtititics not only helps improve day-to-day decisions, but more importantly deployment decisions,” Taliaferro said in a press release. “Knowing in advance that an aircraft will need a major repair before deployment will allow for much better decisions that could save missions and taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Virtualitics is developing 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 does. The company has customers in life sciences, technology, financial services and government.

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