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Washington’s Bet on AI Warfare

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The future of warfare will certainly be data-driven and AI-enabled, and, in many ways, it already is.

Throughout human history, technological progress has translated into military prowess. In most instances, the states that incorporate new technologies more quickly and effectively into their respective militaries have gained a significant advantage over their adversaries. The same is likely to be true for artificial intelligence (AI), with the United States and China currently locked in a competition for global AI superiority. This competition for AI and technological supremacy could very well dictate the future global landscape.

Although China might disagree with the existence of such a technological competition, the United States firmly believes in it. This was evident in a speechby U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks on August 28, 2023. Deputy Secretary Hicks’ speech was significant for several reasons, primarily because it gave valuable insight into the U.S. military’s strategic thinking about China, AI and autonomous systems, and technological innovation.

At the core of Deputy Secretary Hicks’ speech was that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) aimed to have a “data-driven and AI-empowered military.” Although AI has gained mainstream popularity within the past few years, great powers have been looking into the military applications of AI for decades now. From 2014 onwards, when the United States announced its Third Offset Strategy, it has been building the foundation for incorporating AI into its military. The 2021 report by the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) was perhaps the most telling. The report stated that the DOD was far from “AI-ready” and urged it to heavily increase investment by 2025 and “integrate AI-enabled technologies into every facet of war-fighting.” This same line of thought informed Deputy Secretary Hicks’ speech.

Deputy Secretary Hicks announced the “Replicator Initiative,” which she described as a new DOD initiative to develop quickly and field “swarms of low-cost air, land, or sea drones that could swarm an enemy.” She called it a “big bet” that could counter China’s most significant advantage—the ability to bring a mass of platforms and people to the battlefield. The DOD hoped to leverage “attritable, autonomous systems in all domains—which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times.”

The initiative would focus on platforms that are “small, smart, cheap, and many.” The immediate objective of the Replicator Initiative is for the U.S. military to “field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18 to 24 months,” Hicks said. This statement deserves thorough analysis.

Firstly, the scale of the autonomous systems is enormous and will apply to various domains. With the United States currently the technological hub of the world, the widespread use of autonomous systems by the U.S. military would likely force other states to adopt such systems to maintain strategic parity. Autonomous systems would likely proliferate to U.S. allies and strategic partners as well.

Secondly, and more importantly, is the stated timeline of the next 18 to 24 months. This is rather alarming, particularly given that issues surrounding AI ethics and regulation have gathered momentum recently. Although the United States claims to follow a “responsible and ethical” approach to AI in its Replicator Initiative, the specified timeline makes these claims hard to believe. However, it’s also important to note that the U.S. military has likely been working on this initiative for quite some time, so it would have specific rules to reduce the risks of incorporating AI in the military. How AI norms and regulations would affect a crisis, however, is a debate for another day.

Even if the United States had been planning such an initiative for years, it now feels confident enough to announce and implement it. Ukraine has acted as a testing ground for using drones and autonomous systems on the battlefield and has clearly demonstrated their power. Russia and Ukraine regularly deploy drones in military operations. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) estimates that Ukraine has lost a staggering 10,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) monthly. These drones are helpful for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes, as well as for direct targeting of the adversary’s military and civilian infrastructure.

Deputy Secretary Hicks also directly mentioned China as the sole target for the Replicator Initiative. She added: “We must ensure the PRC leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, ‘today is not the day’—and not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond.” She also mentioned that “all-domain, attritable autonomous systems (ADA2) will help overcome the challenge of anti-access, area-denial systems (A2AD). Our ADA2 to thwart their A2AD.” This is a critical point. China’s A2AD strategy focuses on the South China Sea. The United States stating that it would use drones to counter China’s A2AD strategy indicates that it is willing, directly or indirectly, to intervene militarily in the region.

China, on the other hand, holds an entirely different understanding of AI than the United States does. Although China aims to become the global leader in AI by 2030, it has so far remained characteristically secretive about its military incorporation of AI. However, this has not stopped the United States from viewing China’s AI progress as a major challenge to its global leadership.

Ultimately, the future of warfare will be data-driven and AI-enabled, and, in many ways, it already is. However, we must better understand the potential dangers of integrating AI into autonomous military systems. Given the rapid pace of advancements in AI and the importance given to the military applications of AI by major states, the incorporation of AI into the militaries of major states is a matter of when not if. Deputy Secretary Hicks’ speech mentioned the impact of the Replicator Initiative on the speed and scale of the U.S. military. That will likely be the character of future warfare: it will be fought rapidly, and human combatants will operate alongside many autonomous systems. Although this might seem to be a more effective method of warfighting for some, the risk of escalation from autonomous systems might be too great.

Shayan Hassan Jamy is a research analyst in emerging technologies and global power competition