As the technology brings changes in all aspects of life, a new form of military aid has emerged called the Artificial Intelligence (AI). The concept of AI was coined by John McCarthy in the 1950s and was defined by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence as “the scientific understanding of the mechanisms underlying thought and intelligent behavior and their embodiment in machines.”
Today, AI has broad applications in almost every field of life including the militaries across the world which invest heavily in Research and Development of the defence applications of AI. As a result, the future wars will involve making data available for real-time analysis, enhancing the speed of warfare, providing better situational awareness, supporting in informed decision-making and exploring the range of options available to the military decision-maker.
This article focuses on the increasing relevance of AI in defense and how it can lead to problem solving abilities by means of Machine Learning and the availability of Big Data.
Prospects of AI applications in Military
Military applications of AI can be broadly categorised into those that have utility at a predominately operational level and those that are important for the strategic level of warfare. The operational level applications include autonomy and robotics; big data–driven modeling and intelligence analysis to locate and monitor mobile missiles, submarines, mines, and troops movement. At the strategic level, applications include Early warning; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) systems; nuclear weapon delivery systems; enhanced missile defense (with machine-learning-augmented Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) technology; conventional precision missile munitions (hypersonic glide etc.) able to target strategic weapons; augment air defense through enhanced OODA loop and electronic warfare and AI-enhanced offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.
AI and the Strategic Landscape
Between 2017 and 2019, around 17 countries released a national strategy and made a strategic policy announcement that highlights national AI capabilities as a top priority. Globally, the United States and China are amongst the leading countries that invested in military applications of AI.
In the United States, the Department of Defence (DoD)’s unclassified investments in AI grew from USD 600 million in 2016 to USD 927 million in 2020, by putting together reportedly over 600 active AI projects. US DOD’s Project Maven is an initiative to improve US military’s target assessment capabilities using AI, allowing the military to better distinguish between combatants and civilians in drone footage. Furthermore, the US military seeks to exploit AI’s analytic potential in the area of command and control. Most significant in this regard is the US Air Force development of a system for Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2). It aims to centralise planning and execution of air, space, cyberspace, sea, and land-based operations. In the immediate future, AI may be used to fuse data from sensors in all of these domains to create a single source of information, also known as a “common operating picture,” for decision makers.
China’s 2017 “Next Generation AI Development Plan” describes AI as a “strategic technology” that evolved as a “focus of international competition.” According to the document, China seeks to develop a core AI industry worth over USD 21.7 billion by 2020 and will “firmly seize the strategic initiative” and reach “world leading levels” of AI investment by 2030.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in an address in 2017 stated that “the one who becomes the leader in this sphere will be the ruler of the world.” Russia plans to incorporate AI into its military operations by using it for autonomous aerial, naval, and undersea vehicles and is currently developing swarming capabilities.
India allocated USD 462 million in 2018 for its Digital India program, which is an initiative to promote AI, machine learning, 3D printing and other digital technologies. An AI Task Force comprising of multiple stakeholders including the government, services, academia, industry, professionals and start-ups studied the strategic implications of AI from the perspective of national security. It recommended that India become “a significant power of AI in defence” especially in “aviation, naval, land systems, cyber, nuclear, and biological warfare”, for both defensive and offensive needs, including counter-AI needs.
On the doctrinal side, India’s Land warfare doctrine 2019 states that “at the core of India’s future military planning would be the effective integration of soldiers, AI and robotics into war-fighting systems that exploit the existing capabilities for success in battle.” India is likely to incorporate technological tools to operate autonomous/semi-autonomous weapon systems equipped with AI, including military surveillance drones, combat robots, and other destabilising autonomous high-speed weapons posing a threat to its strategic stability.
In Pakistan, some of the key institutions working on AI include the Department of Robotics and Intelligent Machine Engineering (RIME) NUST, established in 2011; the National Center of Artificial Intelligence (NCAI) at NUST, established in March 2018 and the Presidential Initiative for Artificial Intelligence and Computing (PIAIC) launched in December 2018. The current government has taken the initiative to promote cutting edge R&D and product development through supporting startups and joint industry-academia collaborations in the field of emerging technologies and approved four National Centers in the field. However, Pakistan still faces challenges in terms of collating data centrally, data protection, technology denial at the international level and lack of sufficient capacity-building in this regard.
StrategicStability and AI The Lure of Technology
The use of AI-augmented conventional and strategic capabilities affects the state in different ways. The integration of AI into nuclear force-related systems enhances accuracy and reaction times, geographical locations and overall performance, of strategic offensive and defensive systems.
Such applications are crucial in getting a complete picture of the battlespace during peace and crisis and/or also ensure negative control over strategic assets during peacetime and crises. Other applications can work towards improving early warning systems, creating resilience in C4I systems, and assist verification of arms control agreements to ensure mutual compliance. The AI applications offer the lure of speed, precision, ISR, automation, cyber tools and decision making support that may be too tempting to avoid. The real danger is compounded by the fact that states can use AI applications to destabilize global and regional paradigms of stability.
A new generation of artificial intelligence–enhanced conventional capabilities can exacerbate the risk of inadvertent escalation caused by the commingling of nuclear and non-nuclear platforms as well as targeting of strategic weapon systems with conventional precision strike munitions. The increasing speed of warfare will also undermine strategic stability and increase the risk of nuclear confrontation, by reducing the time available for decision-makers to respond in a crisis situation. The use of AI, machine learning and autonomy enhances capabilities of precision munitions, BMD, nuclear submarines, unmanned vehicles, and ASAT weapons.
Challenges of Military AI Applications
The integration of AI in defence is not without challenges. Narrow AI based applications are trained for specific tasks and hence they may not be able to adopt to the rapidly shifting environment. The lack of adaptability to a complex and changing environment increases the risk of accidents and mistakes.
In the nuclear realm, propositions about the onset or escalation in a crisis or war are untested, since a nuclear war has not been fought. So the decision-support systems would have limited and biased datasets they would be fed on. Furthermore, the opacity about the level of integration would compound a state’s planning vis-à-vis the adversary, obfuscating the nuclear operations and possibly increasing alert levels. Currently there are no norms that govern this realm of technology application. There is a need to overcome the reliability issues among nations by building norms around AI and national security.
AI: A Strategic Game Changer or Force Multiplier
AI is the next military offset and there is a need to engage in effective framework for its governance and understand the challenge and opportunities it offers. In the strategic realm, the technology integration should be guided by the objective of maintaining a safe and credible nuclear deterrent for the state’s defence.
It is too early to make definitive judgements about the long-term effects of AI on strategic stability; nonetheless, whatever the level of advances in the technology, human control in strategic decision-making and command-and-control systems should never be relinquished. Finally, AI cannot exist in isolation and can hardly be termed as a strategic game changer. It would serve as a force-multiplier for conventional and nuclear force related capabilities. i.e. it would increase the speed, precision, data processing and analytics as a decision aid, and compress decision making time. As such, the effects that its military applications generate would both be stabilizing as well as destabilizing.
This article was published in the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE) on September 10, 2020.