The US Air Force is teaching AI to navigate aircraft in case GPS gets taken out in a future fight

In a future war, electronic warfare and anti-satellite weapons could leave the US military without GPS, a critical tool for navigation and targeting.

That challenge has prompted the US Air Force to experiment with using artificial intelligence as an alternative navigation method. It is just one of the many AI projects for the US military that could reshape warfare.

If the US were to go to war with a great power, such as China or Russia, GPS satellites and other navigation technology would likely be a primary target. Even if it were just jammed or interfered with, the result could be chaos for some American systems that rely on GPS.

A potential solution being developed by the US Air Force instead relies on AI for navigating in GPS-denied environments.

"We think we may have added an arrow to the quiver in the things we can do, should we end up operating in a GPS-denied environment. Which we will," Col. Garry Floyd, director for the Department of Air Force-MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator program, told the Associated Press.

Last year, the Air Force tested what it would look like to use an AI program to navigate a C-17 cargo plane via Earth's magnetic fields, a difficult method due to how electromagnetic noise from other elements, including the aircraft itself, can complicate the process. But the AI, Floyd explained to AP, was able to learn through the flight tests which signals to follow in order to direct the aircraft on where to go.

The potential for AI to be used as an alternative to GPS navigation speaks to the growing concern around GPS denial in a future fight. Much has been learned from the war in Ukraine, where both sides employ electronic warfare and GPS spoofing to jam drones and missiles, throw weapons off course, and create other challenges.

The Pentagon has long been at work on electronic warfare solutions in its joint force, developing jamming-resistant seekers and other alternatives that don't rely on GPS for coordinates. Back in August 2023, one defense official said the Army was "fundamentally reinvesting in rebuilding our tactical electronic-warfare capability after that largely left the force over the last 20 years," adding that war in Ukraine had added "urgency" to those efforts. 

AI creates new opportunities, and the Air Force's navigation alternative isn't the only project looking into how to integrate AI into military systems. Just last month, officials announced a landmark test between an AI-piloted F-16 fighter jet and a manned jet.

While officials wouldn't reveal who won the test, which occurred September 2023, citing national security concerns, one did note that the AI program used was "progressing as well or faster than we had hoped." The use of AI raises questions though.

This week, the US and China will meet in Geneva for a major discussion on AI use. When asked about details of what AI policies, specifically those relating to reserving the right to make kill decisions and nuclear weapons deployment for humans, would be discussed at the meeting, a senior administration official told reporters that "this is the first meeting of its kind." They said that "we expect to have a discussion of the full range of risks, but wouldn't prejudge any specifics at this point."