The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act Zeroes In on AI Development

January 19, 2021 by Luke James

The National Defense Authorization Act is a landmark in artificial intelligence legislation, which could advance U.S. leadership in this field and help the country fortify its competitive edge in the chip industry.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has serious implications for all industries, including those related to national security, military and defense, and economic prosperity. As such, many nations have prioritized AI leadership as a high agenda item.

In the United States, the Department of Defense (DoD) has its eye firmly set on AI, and the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) marks a huge leap forward in the DoD’s AI leadership and development


Example of one of the sections in NDAA 2021

Example of one of the sections in NDAA 2021 focused on AI development. Image used courtesy of


NDAA Background

Each fiscal year, Congress must pass a new but often analogous National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes that year’s appropriations and sets out the budget, expenditures, and policies for DoD. 

As with many U.S. laws, additional provisions, unrelated to defense spending, are included within the Act. For example, the NDAA for 2020 sanctioned European businesses involved in the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to the United States, since the United States was seeking to sell more of its own liquefied gas to European states.

While NDAAs are usually passed by Congress without a hitch, the $740 billion NDAA for fiscal year 2021 hit a snag. It was vetoed by President Trump, who requested to amend or terminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which would "shield online platforms from liability claims arising from user speech," according to the FWC. 


The House overruled the President's veto

The House overruled the President's veto on December 28, 2020. Image used courtesy of Space News

On New Year's Day, Congress moved to override the veto—first in the House (which voted 322–87) and then in the Senate (which voted 81–13)—and 2021’s NDAA passed as a law


A Leap Forward for U.S. AI Leadership

The 2021 NDAA will play a big role in U.S. efforts to establish itself as the global leader in AI technology. Indeed, AI will play a pivotal role in the military and defense domains, streamlining intelligence gathering, improving surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and enabling soldiers to more effectively identify targets, among other things. 

In the 2019 NDAA, legislation was introduced to establish the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) that brought together the country’s leaders in AI and provided Congress with recommendations to improve U.S. competitiveness. In the 2021 NDAA, 17 of NSCAI’s recommendations are authorized, including the authorization of several billion dollars in funding for AI research and allowing the part-time employment of university professors, students, and other researchers in national laboratories for the first time.


Cybersecurity measures outlined in the NDAA

Speaking on the cybersecurity measures outlined in the NDAA, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) commented that it was "just the first step…but if we don't take this first step we fall behind." Image used courtesy of the FWC

It’s not all about military and defense, however. AI applications will be critical for other areas like business and commerce. That’s why the 2021 NDAA will also help to establish important partnerships between government and academia, creating bridges between public and private industry leaders to develop next-gen systems. 


Regaining Chip Industry Competitiveness

The 2021 NDAA could also help the U.S. regain its chip industry competitiveness, something that has been a goal in recent years. With China now developing its domestic IC industry backed by over $150 billion in funding, there has been a sudden re-emergence of the focus on U.S. chip industry competitiveness

The recent enactment of the 2021 NDAA is geared to strengthen the U.S. economy and national security, and it marks a major victory for the country’s chip research and manufacturing. This is because the legislation authorizes strong federal manufacturing incentives and research initiatives that, when funded, will potentially make the U.S. one of the most lucrative destinations for new chip fabs