Kelly McSweeney

Dec 27th 2021

Algorithms Are Powering Collaborative Autonomy for the Joint Force


In the civilian world, algorithms help humans make sense of massive amounts of data to support faster, better decision-making. These mathematical instructions enable computers to lighten the mental load so that we can make split-second decisions in scenarios where we’re faced with many options.

On the battlefield, they can even help warfighters — and the intelligent machines on which they rely — make the right decisions quickly in critical situations.

Algorithms and Human Innovation

While we once watched television on just a few channels, we now have thousands of movies and shows available on demand. An algorithm that runs behind your favorite streaming platform can help you decide what to watch next by suggesting shows that are similar to others you’ve watched. But algorithms are also helping with more serious decisions, such as those that come with hiring employees and investing in startups, according to Harvard Business Review, or even identifying cancer, as Nature points out.

Just as a robot can handle dull or dangerous tasks in a factory, computers can handle the tedious aspects of decision-making, freeing up humans to use their intuition, creativity and emotional intelligence to innovate. For instance, instead of having a physician search through thousands of CT scans to find early markers of cancer, an algorithm could do the research, giving time back to the physician for more complex decision-making, such as determining the proper course of treatment for their patient.

Likewise, mathematical equations are also being used to speed processes, simplify functions and enable greater human innovation in the defense industry.

Algorithmic Building Blocks of JADC2

Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) aims to connect platforms and weapons across a common architecture. The ability to sift through data is becoming more important as new and legacy systems grow more interconnected in modern military networks, and sharing information among all branches of the U.S. military and its allies is an essential aspect of warfare in the digital age.

But empowering the Joint Force is a complex issue. The defense industry is working to give military personnel access to as much information as possible while also avoiding clutter. This requires adding sensors to everything, connecting military systems through a secure communications network and ultimately making sense of all the data that’s collected and transmitted.

That’s where algorithms can help clear the clutter. If a civilian vehicle can automatically turn on the windshield wipers when it rains or activate the brakes to avoid a collision, imagine what a military vehicle could do. For example, a fighter jet or tanker could make its own decisions by automatically taking an action if a certain set of circumstances occurs. In these cases, simple decisions with predictable outcomes wouldn’t have to be made by human personnel, which could help reduce the crew’s workload.

Remaining Challenges

Military environments aren’t always predictable. No matter how many scenarios you test an algorithm on in the lab, there may be unexpected situations on the battlefield. How will algorithms respond to brand-new situations they haven’t seen before? When should a human intervene? These questions pose challenges that are still being considered and solved.

This is an era of transition between legacy and cutting-edge systems. Transformational technology, such as Northrop Grumman’s Distributed Autonomy/Responsive Control system, can provide clues and insight for humans to help them make the final decisions. The system strikes a balance between autonomy and human control through collaborative autonomy, an essential building block of modern defense systems and a critical factor in the Joint Force’s success.

Algorithms might not amount to a cyborg army straight out of science fiction, but they can grant our forces superhuman decision-making capabilities, even in situations of intense pressure.

Are you interested in all things related to technology? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.