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NEWS | Jan. 16, 2024

U.S. Army North hosts homeland defense conference, addresses current and future challenges

By 1LT Karlee Skaggs U.S. Army North

Leaders from across the Department of Defense, federal agencies and research communities gathered for a homeland defense symposium hosted by U.S. Army North from December 12-14, 2023, in San Antonio to discuss the future of defense operations in the continental U.S.

The symposium brought the most prominent minds in homeland defense together at one venue to discuss defending the homeland, emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, and the information environment.

Day one consisted of candid conversations between senior leaders, directors and emerging technology experts including virtual appearances by the Secretary of the Army, Deputy Undersecretary of the Army and U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff, as well as representatives from the FBI, FEMA, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, and U.S. Army National Guard and Reserve components. The following days allowed Army leaders and interagency partners to participate in exercises that simulated homeland defense scenarios to better understand what a domestic response might look like.

Participants discussed preparing for homeland defense operations in 2040 and beyond, imploring the homeland defense community to consider the reality of a future potential conflict on American soil.

“The challenge is to get all of us to overcome the belief that domestic infrastructure would not be a theater of war,” said FBI representative Mr. Brett Maryott.

ARNORTH, U.S. Northern Command’s land component command, is responsible for setting the North American theater for homeland defense.

“This is a mature theater,” said Lt. Gen. John Evans, ARNORTH’s commanding general, referencing the American homeland. “But it’s not set. We have lots of stuff here; we have tremendous arteries and enterprises we use to project combat power, but we have not set conditions to make sure we can execute our plans.”

In 2017, the updated National Security Strategy named homeland defense as DoD’s number one priority. Since then, federal agencies, research entities and military commands have bound together to develop creative operational solutions to problems posed by an ever-evolving domestic battlefield and advances in near-peer capabilities. Sometimes, though, these solutions have been hindered by insufficient funding and policy, or even a lack of communication between agencies.

“Everyone has a list,” said Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Region VI Director Harvey Perriott, regarding the mission sets and requirements of homeland defense. “But we don’t actually know if those lists overlap.” This may prevent optimization of resources and could potentially even lend itself to conflicting priorities.

Emerging technologies, whether militarized or not, keep prominent DoD decision-makers and their subsequent commands on their toes. Long-range hypersonic weapons and unmanned delivery systems place unprecedented importance on the Army’s air defense systems, which are ever-developing.

As artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to develop, nefarious actors in the cyber domain pose a threat to domestic infrastructure, such as electric grids, healthcare systems transportation and communication networks. In a world that has grown accustomed to conflict characterized by land combat, Americans could easily forget how accessible much of their lives have become due to the widespread integration of the internet, smart phones and social media.

When talking about the impacts of artificial intelligence on the homeland defense mission, Mr. Lawerence “Larry” Dobbs, acting deputy mission area executive at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, painted a picture of an unfettered resource the DoD is racing to utilize.

“One of the things we are thinking about deeply is how we can put ourselves in the position where we're not relying on AI or autonomous systems to just go off and do something at the push of a button,” said Dobbs, who has spent decades of his career focused on emerging threats and how the U.S. can counter those threats. “Instead, we’re using them to help us better understand the environment, make better decisions, and have a better sense of what’s coming: to do things we weren’t able to do before.”

“AI is moving so fast, we don’t yet know the implications,” said Maryott. “The world has changed tremendously,” he said.

According to the FBI, our adversaries are already harnessing AI capabilities, making it even more important that the U.S. learn to optimize the technology.

The information environment reigns integral to military operations. Projecting false information has become easier than ever for adversaries of the U.S., and it has the potential to inhibit timely and proper decision-making for leaders at all levels. However, the responsibility to combat false information ranges from federal agencies to the individual.

“The information environment is a contested space,” said Hon. Christine Wormuth, Secretary of the Army, during the symposium’s opening remarks. “From Ukraine to Israel, we’ve seen that global connectivity, and the age of the smart phone has made the battlefield almost completely transparent. In a conflict, we must assume that this environment will be completely saturated with disinformation, misinformation and AI-generated deep fakes.”

Evans noted that the DoD has a pulse on one other emerging variable: quantum computing, which combines elements of physics and computer engineering to process information on a subatomic level, outpacing conventional computer systems . Quantum technology will render all current encryption practices obsolete, making cyber infrastructure even more vulnerable.

“It will be a real Oppenheimer moment that will change so much of what we do,” Evans said. “We’ve got to stay ahead of that change.”

Dobbs took this opportunity to emphasize the importance of continued interest in developing creative solutions to our nation’s homeland defense problems.

“Workforce development is a really key thing here,” said Dobbs. “Energizing our youth, encouraging people to get in here and understand the operational needs of these scenarios is something we need to see.”

As the character of war continues to evolve, the homeland defense community attempts to evolve the DoD’s own strategies and technology with it. ARNORTH’s Homeland Defense Symposium enhanced collaboration across the Army and its interagency partners which will, in turn, enable successful operations in the homeland.

“More than anything, what we want is to stop the fight, to convince someone that the fight’s not worth having,” said Evans. “But we've got to be prepared should the fight come to us.”