A new arms rase of artificially-intelligent weapons is already under way, warns Germany's foreign minister, and it could spill over into a “flash war” that erupts out of nowhere.
While the world’s attention has been on the unprecedented pandemic, a new generation of smart drones that can loiter in an enemy’s airspace for extended period before swooping in a devastating kamikaze attack has already been used in combat.
An autonomous weaponised drone reportedly “hunted down” a human target last year and is thought to have attacked them without being specifically ordered to, according to a United Nations report.
Meanwhile, in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijanis displayed a clear superiority in the use of so-called loitering munitions, and military leaders across the world took notice.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin is certainly alert to the power of AI weapons, remarking in 2017: "whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world."
But German foreign minister Heiko Maas, warns that too many people remain unaware that an AI arms race is already well under way: "We're right in the middle of it. That's the reality we have to deal with," he warned in new documentary Future Wars — and How to Prevent Them.
Ulrike Franke, an expert on drone warfare at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told German news outlet Deutsche Welle [DW] that while killer drones had been used in combat before, they “really showed their usefulness”, in the battle over Nagorno-Karabakh.
"The really important aspect of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, in my view, was the use of these loitering munitions, so-called 'kamikaze drones' — these pretty autonomous systems,” he said. ”It was shown how difficult it is to fight against these systems."
General John Murray, head of the US Army Futures Command, warns that the next-generation weapons can attack at such speed and in such numbers that no human defender can hope to fight them : ”When you are defending against a drone swarm, a human may be required to make that first decision,” he said, “but I am just not sure any human can keep up.”
A drone swarm could easily, for example, take out an air defence network by overwhelming its radar-guided weapons, leaving it vulnerable against more conventional aircraft.
Martijn Rasser from the US-based military think-tank Centre for a New American Security, says kamikaze drones could be the perfect first-strike weapon: "You throw so much mass at [an air defence facility] and so many numbers that the system is overwhelmed.
“This, of course, has a lot of tactical benefits on a battlefield," he told DW. "No surprise, a lot of countries are very interested in pursuing these types of capabilities."
China is one of those countries that are investigating the potential of AI war-fighting. The People's Liberation Army is pouring immense resources into the development of what it calls "intelligentised warfare."
Ulrike Franke says that the only way to fight the fast-acting drones already beginning to emerge on the battlefield is with your own fast-acting drones – and letting them make combat decisions without waiting for a human operator to respond.
But, he warns, once drones on both sides are free of human control there’s a very real danger of a conflict escalating out of control before any human commander can react.
"In the literature we call these 'flash wars'," he said, "an accidental military conflict that you didn't want."
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