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Tennessee institutions partner to develop dependable AI for national security applications

Four people sitting in chairs on a stage during a panel discussion under a large presentation screen bearing their names and titles
At the Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit 2024 in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced a partnership to develop training, testing and evaluation methods that will accelerate the Department of Defense’s adoption of AI-based systems in operational environments. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Artificial intelligence is rapidly becoming one of the most important assets in global competition, including AI-assisted autonomy and decision-making in battlefield applications. However, today’s AI models are vulnerable to novel cyberattacks and could be exploited by adversaries. Moreover, the models are not sufficiently robust and dependable to orchestrate and execute inherently human-centric, mission-critical decisions.

“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. “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.”

Under a new partnership announced during the Tennessee Valley Corridor 2024 National Summit in Nashville this week, Vanderbilt and ORNL will build on complementary research and development capabilities and create science-based AI assurance methods to:

  • Ensure 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 scales 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 AI-enabled programs are safe, accurate and reliable at a time when it has never been more imperative to do so,” said Vanderbilt 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, capable of training and testing the largest AI models. 

People sitting in chairs on a stage presenting during a panel discussion
Moe Khaleel, center, associate laboratory director for national security sciences at ORNL, joined Padma Raghavan, left, vice provost for research and innovation at Vanderbilt University, and Ryan Luley, right, with the Information Warfare Division of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, on Wednesday for a panel discussion titled, "Dependable AI for National Security" during the Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit 2024 in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

“With ORNL’s unique expertise and capabilities in computing and AI security, we can train, test, analyze and harden AI models using massive datasets,” said ORNL Director Stephen Streiffer. “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,” stated Mark Linderman, chief scientist at Air Force Research Laboratory’s 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 U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn. “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 collaborative new 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 U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty. “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.”  

About Vanderbilt University

Founded in 1873 as an institution that would “contribute to strengthening the ties that should exist between all sections of our common country,” Vanderbilt University is globally renowned for its transformative education and pathbreaking research. The university’s 10 schools reside on a parklike campus set in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee, contributing to a collaborative culture that empowers leaders of tomorrow and prizes free expression, open inquiry and civil discourse.

Top-ranked in both academics and financial aid, Vanderbilt offers an immersive residential undergraduate experience, with programs in the liberal arts and sciences, engineering, music, education and human development. The university also is home to nationally and internationally recognized graduate schools of law, education, business, medicine, nursing and divinity, and offers robust graduate-degree programs across a range of academic disciplines. Vanderbilt’s prominent alumni base includes Nobel Prize winners, members of Congress, governors, ambassadors, judges, admirals, CEOs, university presidents, physicians, attorneys, and professional sports figures.

Vanderbilt and the affiliated nonprofit Vanderbilt University Medical Center frequently engage in interdisciplinary collaborations to drive positive change across society at large. The two entities recently reached a combined total of more than $1 billion in external research funding in a single year. This landmark achievement reflects the university’s deep commitment to expanding the global impact of its innovation and research as it increases opportunities for faculty, students and staff to pursue bold new ideas and discoveries.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit