by David Weldon

Air Force CDAIO Eileen Vidrine on leading top-flight AI operations

Nov 21, 20239 mins
Artificial IntelligenceData ManagementGovernment IT

The newly appointed chief AI officer is charged with leading the US Air and Space Force’s development and use of AI to gain a strategic advantage over adversaries. Here she shares what it takes to s쳮d in this emerging role.

Eileen Vidrine stylized
Credit: Eileen Vidrine / Department of the Air Force

Artificial intelligence is transforming the ways in which we do virtually everything. That includes how the United States fights wars, monitors threats, and safeguards the national defense. The role of AI has become so critical to military strategy and capability that the US Air and Space Forces appointed its first chief artificial intelligence officer this year.

This past spring, the Department of the Air Force (DAF) named Eileen Vidrine as chief data and artificial intelligence officer. With the appointment, Vidrine rejoined the department after serving as the senior strategic advisor for data to the federal CIO in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a post she held since January 2022. Prior to OMB, Vidrine served as chief data officer for the DAF for three-plus years. recently spoke with Vidrine about her new role, the experiences and skills she brings to the post, and the increasing role that AI will play in the country’s defense.

What led to adding the title of chief artificial intelligence officer to your then-chief data officer role?

Eileen Vidrine: Including artificial intelligence within my role and office was a natural progression in fulfilling the mandate of strengthening and modernizing the Department of the Air Force’s data strategy and capabilities.

The DAF and the Secretary of the Air Force have prioritized AI. They recognize the critical role it will play in the future of the military — from enhancing decision-making processes to streamlining operations. As the development of AI technologies continues to advance rapidly, the department must adapt to these changes to remain ahead of the curve.

By integrating AI into my role, I can oversee and direct the department’s efforts toward effectively leveraging AI technologies. These efforts include the integration of machine learning algorithms and other AI-based solutions to enhance data processing, analysis, and utilization. Moreover, I am able to contribute towards driving innovation and fostering collaboration within the DAF, while assisting with the implementation and optimization of AI-based solutions.

Integrating AI into my role as chief data officer is part of the broader directive by leadership to prioritize the development and utilization of AI technologies to enhance the department’s capabilities. My team’s responsibility is to ensure the responsible implementation and effective utilization of these technologies to support the department’s mission and operations ultimately.

Were you given any specific mandates or missions with this new role?

As chief data and AI officer for the Department of the Air Force, I was given a clear mandate to establish the department as a frontrunner in AI readiness and competitiveness. The DAF has set ambitious goals to achieve AI readiness by 2025, and an AI competitive edge by 2027, in order to gain a strategic advantage over our adversaries in national security.

In the process, my team and I aim to accomplish the following:

  • Developing an AI strategy that aligns with the DAF’s digital transformation efforts and contributes to the national defense strategy.
  • Establishing a robust data governance framework to ensure the ethical and responsible use of AI-powered technologies.
  • Building a strong AI workforce comprised of data scientists, engineers, and other experts who can design, develop, and deploy AI applications across the DAF.
  • Identifying critical use cases and scenarios that can benefit from the application of AI and developing and implementing AI solutions to address these areas.
  • Establishing partnerships with other government agencies, academic institutions, and industry partners to drive innovation and collaboration in AI research and development.

Overall, the mandate given to me and my team is clear and significant, requiring focused and dedicated efforts to achieve the desired outcomes. We recognize that AI readiness and competitiveness are critical to maintaining the DAF’s superiority in the modern warfighting domain. We are committed to delivering on our missions to achieve these goals.

What in your background makes you a strong fit for this role?

As the department’s chief data officer over the past three-plus years, I have worked at the forefront of data management and analysis. With over 80-plus successful projects that have resulted in significant synergy between data and AI, I believe that my experience and expertise make me an ideal fit for the DAF chief data and AI officer (CDAO) role.

But my qualifications go beyond just data and AI. My leadership experience in the emerging tech space has been recognized across various organizations, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Throughout my career, I have demonstrated my ability to understand complex technological concepts and communicate them in an understandable and digestible way for all stakeholders.

As CDAO, I manage complex data systems and provide actionable insights to inform business decisions. This experience has given me a keen eye for identifying areas of improvement and a willingness to take bold action to drive change.

What skills, knowledge, and personal traits do you bring to the role that you believe will help you be successful?

First and foremost, I am a data leader with a strong technical background. My technical expertise enables me to see the bigger picture and identify innovative solutions that can be crafted to improve the strategic operations of an organization. I have a comprehensive understanding of the latest technological advancements to help me lead teams with precision in deploying new systems and processes.

It’s not all technical, however, because soft skills carry equal weight. I have a high level of emotional intelligence. That helps me be an excellent collaborator and facilitator of teamwork. Creating a positive organizational culture is a crucial prerequisite for success. I am committed to fostering inclusive environments where team members feel valued, respected, and heard. Investing in the team enables me to draw on individual strengths to develop interdepartmental relationships critical to strategic success.

How do you believe this role may impact your career in the short and long term?

I have the chance to lead and execute data and AI strategies that integrate disruptive technologies into the processes and operations of the DAF. The ability to deliver innovative solutions and ensure mission readiness is directly tied to the success of our warfighters.

In the short term, I aim to streamline processes and create efficiencies across the information technology landscape of the DAF. That includes using automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, to increase responsiveness to warfighter needs. The impact of these changes will be felt immediately, resulting in heightened effectiveness and efficiency in how we work.

My long-term goal is to establish a culture of innovation through effective collaboration and partnerships. By fostering an environment of rapid prototyping and knowledge sharing, we can provide incremental yet impactful changes for the warfighter, adding up over time and providing greater competitive advantage.

How would you define the individual that is a ‘best fit’ for the role of chief AI officer?

The ideal candidate for the chief data and AI officer role is someone with a unique combination of self-starting abilities, collaborative thought leadership, and a highly strategic mindset.

The right candidate must be a self-starter who can create a roadmap for success in their role rather than relying on the guidance of others. This individual should be able to identify opportunities and work independently to achieve their goals proactively. They should deeply understand the data and AI space, and be comfortable staying ahead of the curve with emerging trends and technologies.

The individual must be a collaborative thought leader, focused on getting things done and achieving results through teamwork. They should be an excellent communicator who clearly and convincingly articulates their vision and ideas to stakeholders at all levels. They must also build and nurture relationships with internal and external stakeholders, including employees, customers, and partners.

The CAIO must possess a highly strategic mindset that allows them to think critically and make data-driven decisions. They should be analytical and data proficient, and able to evaluate complex data sets to identify patterns, trends, and insights. Additionally, they should understand the data and AI industry, including emerging technologies, trends, and regulatory controls.

With the right mix of these traits, this individual will be well-positioned to harness the power of emerging data and AI technologies to drive growth and success for their organization.

How do you see AI evolving in the next few years, and what will advances mean for organizations not currently using the technologies?

AI has already revolutionized numerous industries across the globe, and experts predict that its impact will only continue to grow in the coming years. With the continuous advancements in technology — and increasing data availability — AI will enable organizations to automate processes, reduce costs, and make more informed decisions.

We can expect AI to become more sophisticated and integrated into various organizational operations in the next few years. One central area where AI is expected to thrive is data analytics. AI-powered algorithms will process vast amounts of data to discover valuable insights, enabling organizations to improve performance, streamline processes, and gain a competitive edge.

Another area where we can expect to see AI evolving is in the realm of customer service. Chatbots and AI-powered virtual assistants will become increasingly common in organizations, providing quick and personalized engagement. These capabilities will enable human employees to focus on more complex tasks.

For organizations not currently using AI technologies, there is a risk of falling behind the competition. AI will become essential for organizations to remain competitive and agile in the coming years. Investing in AI technologies will improve efficiency and productivity, enhance employee satisfaction, and attract top talent.

by David Weldon

David Weldon is a freelance writer in the Boston area who specializes in topics related to information technology, finance, education, healthcare, and workforce and workplace issues. Contact him at

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