Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: AI co-pilots Air Force flight for first time | Government funding, COVID-19 relief hit last-minute snags | Top veterans groups call for Wilkie’s firing


Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Reality is edging closer to science fiction as the U.S. military gets its own Artoo.

For the first time, the Air Force used artificial intelligence to co-pilot a military aircraft, the service announced Wednesday.

The AI algorithm was dubbed ARTUµ in a reference to “Star Wars” droid R2-D2. 

The test flight happened Tuesday with a U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft. The U-2 was flown by a human pilot identified by the Air Force with only their call sign, “Vudu,” a major assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California. ARTUµ in a was responsible for sensor employment and tactical navigation, according to an Air Force news release.

“Though lacking those lively beeps and squeaks, ARTUµ surpassed its motion picture namesake in one distinctive feature: it was the mission commander, the final decision authority on the human-machine team,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, wrote in an op-ed for Popular Mechanics published Wednesday.

About the test: The pilot and ARTUµ flew a reconnaissance mission during a simulated missile strike. The AI’s main job was to find enemy launchers while the human looked for threatening aircraft, both using the plane’s radar, according to the Air Force release.

After takeoff, sensor control was handed over to ARTUµ, which used lessons previously learned from more than half a million computer-simulated training runs to manipulate the sensor.

During the flight, ARTUµ was pitted against another dynamic computer algorithm in order to prove the new technology, according to the release.

“Putting AI safely in command of a U.S. military system for the first time ushers in a new age of human-machine teaming and algorithmic competition,” Roper said in a statement Wednesday. “Failing to realize AI’s full potential will mean ceding decision advantage to our adversaries.”

FUNDING DEAL DOWN TO THE WIRE, AGAIN: Negotiations over a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill are running into 11th-hour snags, threatening to push Congress into a rare weekend session. 

Lawmakers had hoped to clinch a sweeping deal, which would also fund the government through Oct. 1, on Wednesday after the top four congressional leaders signaled that they were closing in on an agreement after months of stalemate. 

But instead lawmakers and staff warned that – while they still thought they would get the agreement – the final stages of the talks are moving slowly as they continue to haggle over the details and field requests for changes. 

“It’s still a ways off, I think. They’ve still got some things they’re negotiating. …It’s been a slow roll so far,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber, after he left the Capitol following the Senate’s final votes of the day. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the No. 4 GOP senator, pointed to a myriad of moving parts, including lawmakers trying to hitch their legislative pet projects on the final moving train of the year, that are throwing a curveball into the timing of an agreement.  

“We’re close enough that these could close pretty quickly but they might not,” he said. “You’ve got the omni, you’ve got COVID and then you’ve got all these little extraneous pieces.” 

A GOP aide, asked about the chances of a deal in principle on Wednesday night, said they “doubt it.” 

Another stopgap possible: Leading lawmakers in both parties are voicing support for another short-term extension of government funding if one is needed to prevent a shutdown at the end of the week.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said separately on Wednesday that they’ll support a continuing resolution to keep the government running if the debate over broader legislation is not wrapped up before Friday night.

“I’m against shutting down government,” Hoyer told reporters on a press call. “I think it is a stark admission of failure.”

Shelby delivered a similar message on Wednesday. Asked about passing a short resolution, he indicated he would be supportive, saying Congress would do “whatever we have to do.”

Emerging COVID relief deal: Earlier in the day, Senate and House leaders appeared on the cusp of a coronavirus relief deal that includes direct $600 to $700 direct stimulus payments and $300-per-week supplemental unemployment assistance.

The emerging deal will not include $160 billion in new state and local aid or liability protection for businesses and other organizations — two of the most contentious issues of the talk.

But leadership is still wading through a myriad of policy and political fights as they try to wrap up an agreement. 

GOP concerns over Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding flared Wednesday over worries that Democrats could be using the money to try to find a backdoor to providing more state and local funding, something that draws fierce pushback from some Republicans. 

There’s also tensions around the negotiations on a second round of stimulus checks and how to handle the beefed up unemployment insurance.

Negotiators were looking at reducing the length of the unemployment to help pay for the stimulus checks, which Thune estimated would be around $600 to $700. Whether the checks would have the same $75,000 income cap like a massive March bill was still under discussion.  

Progressives are pushing for more robust stimulus checks. 

‘BIG SIX’ VETS GROUPS CALL FOR WILKIE’S FIRING: The country’s six largest veterans groups are calling for President Trump to immediately fire Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.

The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America wrote in a letter to the White House that Wilkie had lost the trust of veterans after last week’s  bombshell inspector general report confirming he sought to discredit a congressional aide who reported being sexually assaulted at the VA medical center in Washington, D.C.

“This is a tremendous breach of trust among veterans and Secretary Wilkie must be held accountable,” they wrote. “His actions not only threaten to deter veterans from seeking care at VA, but also undermine the efforts of VA staff who have been working to bring an end to sexual harassment throughout the department.” 

“[S]exual assault and harassment have no place in the VA or our society as a whole,” the groups added. “As the Secretary has refused to take responsibility for his documented wrongdoing in this matter, we, the leaders of the undersigned veterans service organizations, call on you to take further action by immediately removing him from office.”

Earlier: The groups, along other major veterans organizations, already called for Wilkie’s resignation in statements Friday and Saturday.

Nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers have also called for Wilkie to leave.

fBut no Republican lawmaker has called for Wilkie’s resignation so far.

The VA has dismissed calls for Wilkie’s ouster, saying that he “has led VA to achieve landmark improvements in veterans’ trust, quality of care and employee satisfaction. He will continue to lead the department, including its historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond will speak at TechCrunch’s Space 2020 virtual event at 12:15 p.m. and assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics Will Roper will speak at 1:30 p.m. 


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Tags Donald Trump John Thune Richard Shelby Robert Wilkie Roy Blunt Steny Hoyer

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