All about Pentagon’s new AI chief

Since February, John Sherman has been serving as the interim CDAO.

The US Department of Defense has appointed Dr. Craig Martell as Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer (CDAO). “With Craig’s appointment, we hope to see the department increase the speed at which we develop and field advances in AI, data analytics, and machine-learning technology. He brings cutting-edge industry experience to apply to our unique mission set,” said deputy secretary of defence Kathleen H Hicks.

The CDAO role was created to oversee data and AI initiatives under one official at the highest levels of the Pentagon. The CDAO reports to the deputy secretary of defence.

Since February, John Sherman has been serving as the interim CDAO. Earlier in an interview, he said the CDAO office “is about decision advantage” and “getting ahead of these near-peer competitors, with the best insight and information that we can possibly have.” He also said the job of the incoming CDAO would be to “raise the waterline” for AI and accelerate digital development across military services and commands. As CDAO, Martell will be responsible for leveraging AI and analytics to give commanders and decision-makers the capabilities to stay ahead of China- ‘the Pentagon’s pacing challenge’. 

Why does the Pentagon need an AI chief?

The US military’s AI use was initially focused on experiments rather than autonomy on the frontlines. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act mandated the DOD to designate a senior official to drive strategic AI adoption and execute a transition plan. The Defense Innovation Board had also recommended the deputy secretary of defence create a senior-level committee to oversee DOD’s AI strategy and ethical principles. In 2021, the department announced the creation of the CDAO role, with a view to reach full operational capability by June 2022. 

“The US is reorienting its geopolitical strategy around technology. This strategy rests on pillars like defence, alongside foreign policy, trade, etc. The Pentagon’s AI officer will be a critical role in this regard. This person will oversee the projects, like autonomous weapons, that help the US take on future challenges. There are many implications. One of the biggest is that the US is making AI the new “core” of its military, instead of treating it as a peripheral variable. This means the US could start deploying AI across the military spectrum, adding a new dimension to the geopolitics of AI,” said Abishur Prakash, geopolitical futurist and ​​co-founder at Center for Innovating the Future (CIF).

The office of CDAO comprised Joint Artificial Intelligence Center- responsible for the implementation of AI within the department, the office of the Chief Data Officer- in charge of data management, the Defense Digital Service- responsible for finding solutions for internal data and security issues, and the Office of Advancing Analytics- the department that aggregates data and conducts data analytics. 

In December 2021, a Pentagon official discussed the inefficiencies of having different autonomous bodies, such as a lack of symbiosis across the JAIC, the DDS and the CDO. 

Who is Craig Martell?

Craig Martell has served as the head of ML at Lyft, Dropbox and Linkedin. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Pennsylvania. However, Martell’s exposure to the US military is limited to his service as a Professor of Computer Science at the Naval Postgraduate School overseeing the NPS Natural Language Processing Lab for 11 years. He also acknowledged this in an interview, saying the DoD needed someone agile. He said, “I don’t know my ways around the Pentagon yet, and I don’t know what levers to pull”. The department needed someone from the industry who knows how to bring AI and analytical value to the table at scale and speed. 

As CDAO, Martell’s first order of business will be to identify the “marquee customers” and the systems his office will need to improve. His budget for fiscal 2023 is USD 600 million.


The Pentagon memo in February chalked out the CDAO’s responsibilities. 

1) CDAO, in coordination with USD(R&E) and USD(A&S), will drive DoD’s adoption of data, analytics, and AI from operational prototyping to operations.

2) CDAO will oversee Responsible AI policy and Al Assurance policy in collaboration with USD (R&E) and DOT &E. 

3) In collaboration with USD(A&S), CDAO will foster industry engagement on data, analytics, and AI.

4) CDAO will offer technical support to USD(A&S) on data, analytics, and AI technology sharing and program cooperation with allies and partners. 

4) CDAO will drive international engagements to facilitate AI readiness and responsibly use data, comport with data sharing requests and requirements, and incorporate Al capabilities at speed and scale. 

5) CDAO will support USDC/CFO by providing access to the enterprise financial data, process automations, and reconciliations required to enable the audit of the Department’s financial statements. 

6) CDAO will ensure Advana and other audit relevant data systems under its control pass audit.

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Avi Gopani
Avi Gopani is a technology journalist that seeks to analyse industry trends and developments from an interdisciplinary perspective at Analytics India Magazine. Her articles chronicle cultural, political and social stories that are curated with a focus on the evolving technologies of artificial intelligence and data analytics.

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