DAF’s New Data and AI Officer Envisions Digital Fluency, Seamless Environments

The one-star taking over data and artificial intelligence for the Department of the Air Force knows what to prioritize in his new Pentagon job in part thanks to his experience outside the military.

In the business world, “the ability to make decisions is the critical advantage—that’s what separates the winners from the losers,” said Brig. Gen. John M. Olson, who returned to Active duty after working in the aerospace industry and serving in the Reserve. 

In the context of war, some might call that decision-making capacity “the weaponization of data for decision advantage,” Olson said.

His most recent position was mobilization assistant to Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. After two weeks in his new job as the department’s chief data and AI officer, Olson mentioned his priorities in a webinar Jan. 24 hosted by Oracle. He replaced Eileen M. Vidrine, who became senior strategic adviser for data to the federal chief information officer in the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Olson first plans on “driving toward operationalization of data” as a co-lead of the team working on the Advanced Battle Management System, which is the department’s envisioned share of the military’s joint all-domain command and control concept.

He thinks of JADC2 as “the warfighting capability to sense, make sense, and act across all levels in all phases of war, across all domains—air, sea, land, undersea, space—and with our partners, both our allies and our partners, to deliver information advantage at the speed of relevancy.” 

Getting JADC2 to work will call for “comprehensive capabilities to discover, understand, and exchange data across the force and the service—through multiple domains and across multiple security levels—and with multiple partners and users.”

“So talk about a big problem,” Olson said.

The Department of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office contributes technically and acquisition-wise to the “large team effort” working on ABMS. For his part, Olson said he’ll focus on “forces and resources—so, people and funding.” 

In terms of people, he’d like to prioritize digital fluency, ensuring that they’re “productive and engaged” and providing them a “seamless working environment, a seamless collaborative environment, in a timely fashion—because frankly, I think we’ve got a lot of work to do there.”

Prioritizing people also involves companies and academia.

“We’re really looking to harness and partner with them, leverage fully the broad, diverse capabilities of industry,” Olson said. “That’s everything from the technology side all the way through the operations and the analytics and the capabilities—from the edge through the mesh cloud and beyond.”