Tennessee institutions partner to develop dependable AI for national security applications


Artificial intelligence is rapidly becoming one of the most important assets in global competition, including AI-assisted autonomy and decision-making in battlefield applications. But today’s AI models can be vulnerable to novel cyberattacks and could be exploited by adversaries.  

On Wednesday, during the Tennessee Valley Corridor 2024 National Summit in Nashville, Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced a new partnership to build on complementary research and development capabilities and create science-based AI assurance methods to: 

  • Ensure that AI-enabled systems deployed for national security missions are able to function in the most challenging and contested environments 
  • Test and evaluate the resilience and performance of AI tools at large scale in mission-relevant environments 
  • Provide decision-makers with the confidence to rapidly adopt and deploy AI-enabled technologies to maintain U.S. competitive advantage   

Vanderbilt’s basic and applied research in the science and engineering of learning-enabled cyber-physical systems, particularly through the renowned Vanderbilt Institute for Software Integrated Systems, provides a foundation for AI assurance research. 

“We are excited to partner with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to ensure that AI-enabled programs are safe, accurate and reliable, when it has never been more imperative to do so,” said Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. “This radical collaboration among our best researchers and one of the nation’s premier national laboratories will address these crucial challenges head-on. We look forward to the great work we will do together.” 

Building on expertise in high-performance computing, data sciences and national security sciences, ORNL recently established the Center for Artificial Intelligence Security Research, or CAISER, to address emerging AI threats. CAISER leads AI security research and AI evaluation at scale and is capable of training and testing the largest AI models.  

“With ORNL’s unique expertise and capabilities in computing and AI security, we can train, test, analyze and harden AI models using massive datasets,” ORNL Director Stephen Streiffer said. “Working in close cooperation with Vanderbilt, I look forward to advancing the Defense Department’s deployment of AI-based systems for national defense.” 

The partnership will initially focus on enabling the U.S. Air Force to fully utilize autonomous vehicles, such as the AI-enabled X-62A VISTA that recently took Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall for a flight featuring simulated threats and combat maneuvers without human intervention. Together, Vanderbilt and ORNL will provide evidence-based assurance that enables Air Force systems to meet DoD’s requirements for Continuous Authorization to Operate in vital national security roles.  

“The growth in AI applications is breathtaking—most notably in the commercial marketplace, but increasingly in the national defense space as well. While all users of AI are concerned about security and trust of these systems, none is more concerned than the DoD, which is actively developing processes to ensure their appropriate use,” said Mark Linderman, chief scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory Information Directorate. “This partnership will advance the science to enable the U.S. Air Force to confidently field autonomous vehicles, such as the AI-enabled X-62A VISTA, improve situation awareness, and accelerate human decision-making.”  

Autonomous vehicles operating in a truly independent fashion could be a game-changer for the U.S. military. 

“Stewarding our national security and military is one of my greatest responsibilities as a senator,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. “Tennessee is leading the way in developing the advanced technologies that will ensure our nation’s global leadership and protect the lives of our brave service members.” 

The new collaborative research program at Vanderbilt and ORNL continues Tennessee’s tradition of helping the U.S. maintain global leadership. 

“Tennessee is once again leading the way to keep Americans safe. This exciting partnership will leverage two world-class institutions and employ their renowned expertise and resources to make our military stronger and more effective,” said Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., also a two-time Vanderbilt alumnus. “Technological dominance is a key pillar of national security, and this partnership will ensure that the Department of Defense can utilize this developing technology in a secure, robust, continuous and dependable fashion.” 

“AI and autonomous vehicles have great potential to let our military operate in contested environments without having to needlessly put our brave men and women in harm’s way—as long as we can trust the AI,” said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who is chair of the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies. “ORNL and Vanderbilt University have the infrastructure and expertise to develop solutions that will give national security leaders the confidence that these AI systems are secure, reliable and dependable.”