The Swedish Marines using expert systems
Evaluating the state of readiness of a military unit is no mean challenge. While it is conceivable to measure the significance of each element of the process, it would be absurd to suggest that a fighting unit without ammunition, for example, is marginally less ready for action. It is just such a challenge that has faced the Swedish Defence Material Administration (FMV) – and it is one that has been addressed by the use of expert systems technology.
The Swedish armed forces source all their supplies through FMV. From radar systems to pea soup, from combat aircraft to army boots, everything is selected and tested through this organization, which, with a total stock value estimated at US $33 billion, plays a major role in the effective operation of the Swedish army, Airforce, Marines and Navy. Although funding of equipment purchases is channelled through the national defence administration, the users are individual combat units (ranging from a coastal artillery unit to a group of patrol boats or a single ship). FMV therefore has to work closely with commanders of combat units to identify needs.
FMV requires every ounce of visionary thinking from its 3,000 staff to implement military solutions that will remain modern for 20-30 years. Indeed, many equipment systems may take 10-15 years to move from idea to delivery. It is an approach that applies to computer systems, which also come under the control of FMV. A major reorganization within the armed forces over recent years, bringing all the forces together under a single head, has prompted a review of major computer systems, including a one billion Swedish Kronor project to implement complete management and planning systems using Object Orientated technology. Although the computer systems being replaced were developed in the 1960s and 1970s the long-term approach to systems renewal puts all new options under close scrutiny.
Equipment inspections are a routine task for any combat unit. Although a commander will be expected to undertake an annual review, a detailed evaluation is needed every 2-3 years in order to check the existence and function of all equipment.
Bengt Lundell, Information Systems Manager from FMV, has worked with commanders from the Marines to come up with a system that will support this process: “If equipment is not working properly, it is important to know how that will affect the capabilities of the combat unit as a whole. We needed to come up with some rules.”
Although scoring methods were considered, rule induction techniques were preferred because of the greater resolution and the ability to identify the role of a single factor in making a task good or worthless. It is also possible to include qualitative and quantitative information within the same software module. FMV chose a PC-based solution in order that it could be implemented at combat unit level, running on laptop machines. Working closely with Swedish expert systems specialists in Ronneby, FMV implemented the XpertRule® system from XpertRule Software Limited in Lancashire, England.
XpertRule, a software tool for developing intelligent applications, graphically represents a hierarchy of decision-making “Tasks” as a decision-tree. A major “Task” of a combat unit (“Attack”, for example) is broken down into a number of main functions and sub-functions – terminating in equipment parts and components. By using the experience and expertise of combat unit commanders to assess the impact of low-level functions – rule setting – an audit of the physical resources within a combat unit can be used to assess the cumulative effect on the combat unit and its readiness to perform each of the major tasks. Bengt Lundell observes that, given the constant usage of equipment on ships and boats, there tends to be a greater awareness of the effectiveness of equipment, compared with land based forces, where much of the equipment is stored until required.
Programming work has been undertaken by staff from FMV but, crucially, the initial rule setting – initially undertaken at a three day conference – has been consistently undertaken by combat unit commanders. Bengt Lundell comments: “We preferred the simplicity with which rules could be generated. Commanders have a very varied knowledge of Information Technology but they do know what their combat unit has to do and the effect of malfunctions.”
He adds: “Initial responses range from immediate enthusiasm to the very negative – although this tends to develop into a recognition of the value of the approach. We now find that a period of only two or three hours training is necessary to communicate the concepts involved. The way of thinking is much like the evaluation process used at previous group meetings of commanders. It is a formalisation of how they think.”
The prototype expert system was designed and the existing “BRUM” system, as it is known, is now linked to a software application and graphical user interface that presents a user-friendly version of the system for operation in the field. Bengt Lundell points out that the rules continue to be adjusted on the basis of practical experience: “It may stabilise with time”. One of the criteria set by FMV for this and other systems is an ability to work independently of other systems, whilst using electronic data interchange (EDI) to share data. The BRUM system links with systems that report on technical performance, downtime and repair history of equipment, as well as systems that are used to monitor and manage action plans for ongoing maintenance.
The fact that XpertRule allows software development to be separated from the rule setting has been an important factor in the success of the system. Given the highly classified nature of much of the information, it has been possible for access, as well as setting of the rules, to be left to the experts, following limited training in the methodology. Rudolf Sillén, Managing Director at Novacast, believes that this degree of involvement of people with operational expertise is an important movement in the area of systems development: “Conventional computer languages and programming techniques require a programmer to interpret the knowledge elicited from the domain specialist. There are procedural and representational problems, as well as those caused by misinterpretation. Use of XpertRule allows the expert to enter the knowledge without the need for an intermediary. The computer can become an intellectual partner – helping to create new knowledge from information gathered.”
Bengt Lundell stresses that the main value of the system is that it solves a problem for the commanders; providing a better knowledge of their combat units, including the cost implications of improvements in performance. He also points out that the information is valuable to the military headquarters where accurate information on the readiness of armed forces, as well as cost control, is vital. “The view from throughout the organization is that we must implement the system as fast as possible.”
Already, interest is being shown by the Airforce for use on their bases. Consideration is also being given to use of the system in evaluating the ability of FMV’s suppliers to meet contractual obligations for the delivery of maintenance services.
Bengt Lundell believes that expert systems technology has much to offer: “XpertRule provides a good fit to the problem and we have certainly not used all the product’s functions. There is great potential for the use of this type of technology – beyond the peripheral applications that tend to attract attention.” He continues: “I think that people are a little bit scared – afraid that their expertise and knowledge is going to be removed. Our experience in using expert systems shows that the truth is quite the opposite. It is the commander who always remains in control of the combat unit.”