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AI, armed drones and the next-gen warfare

Assif Shameen
Assif Shameen • 10 min read
AI, armed drones and the next-gen warfare
An Israeli soldier with a reconnaissance drone in the Gaza Strip. Photo: Bloomberg
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If you have been following the headlines about global conflicts, you have probably noticed that drones and, more specifically, artificial intelligence (AI) seem to be playing an increasingly important role in conflicts from Ukraine to Gaza. Drones are no longer used just in surveillance and reconnaissance but also for targeted precision strikes. AI is reshaping not only the battlefields but also the way wars are planned and fought.

Robots powered by AI were once used primarily for dirty and dangerous jobs such as bomb disposal or clearing minefields, tasks that could put humans in harm’s way. These days, military operations are influenced by autonomous weapons or “killer robots” as well as state-of-the-art surveillance systems that use AI in some form or another. Armed aerial vehicles, or weaponised drones, are the centrepiece of the war’s new makeover. Advanced robots and vehicles have also been tested on battlefields for years. Now, they too are ready for prime time.

Welcome to the war of the future. AI-powered facial recognition software and heat-sensitive cameras spot enemies before they can do any harm. AI is increasingly being used in Ukraine to coordinate the swarms of armed drones to locate and track targets in real time, conduct precision strikes, carry out complex manoeuvres with a high degree of autonomy and help provide air support to ground forces and cloud cover to manned aircraft targeting Russian forces in occupied Ukraine.

Military commanders are demanding access to AI because they know the old ways of war are no longer relevant. Despite rising geopolitical tensions, no military power these days has the resources to put adequate boots on the ground in faraway conflicts. So, military tacticians these days are focused on gathering all the data they can, training that data and using AI in an array of military operations. “The use of autonomy and artificial intelligence will play an increasingly vital role in places where US forces no longer have a sizeable military presence,” General Michael Kurilla, head of US Central Command, testified in the US Senate last year. “AI-enabled systems can help accelerate the speed of commanders’ decisions and improve the quality and accuracy of those decisions, which can be decisive in deterring a fight and winning in a fight,” US Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen Hicks noted in August.

The way General Kurilla sees it, AI could be a game-changer on the battlefield. “We can take large pieces of terrain and rapidly identify hundreds of targets, prioritise them based on a high-priority target list that determines which ones we should strike with the resources that we have,” he told the Senate. “That happens in seconds versus what would take hours normally, or sometimes even days to be able to develop these targets. And it is doing it in real time at the edge in our command posts and not being tied just back into a garrison computing environment.”

Three months ago, Hicks unveiled the Biden administration’s Urgency to Innovate blueprint at the Emerging Technologies for Defence Conference in Washington, DC. Every few years, under successive administrations, the Pentagon has rolled out its vision of the future of war. In 2018, the Trump administration unveiled its National Defence Strategy with major investments in AI, arguing that America could not “fight tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s weapons or equipment”. The Biden blueprint comes in the wake of growing global fascination with generative AI and ChatGPT.

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The US military is taking the technological shift seriously. “Rather than identify a handful of AI-enabled warfighting capabilities that will beat our adversaries, our strategy outlines the approach to strengthening the organisational environment within which our people can continuously deploy data analytics and AI capabilities for enduring decision advantage,” notes Craig Martell, the Pentagon’s chief digital and AI officer.

How drones became a game changer

Here is why drones have taken flight so quickly and become a game changer: Drone makers deftly leveraged the explosive growth of the smartphone market, which had pushed down the prices of components such as sensors, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, barometers, global positioning systems and magneto-meters, cameras and graphics processors, and put them together with propellers, landing gear, speed controllers and flight controllers to build affordable drones. The advent of 5G connectivity, cloud computing, machine learning and AI has dramatically improved image recognition as well as on-board processing capabilities and made them incredibly powerful and sophisticated unmanned flying machines.

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The ability of military drones to carry greater lethal payloads as well as collaborate in swarms to locate and track targets and conduct precision strikes further enhanced their appeal as a weapon. Guided remotely through satellite data links, drones employ high-resolution optical devices to see targets and guided missiles to destroy them. The absence of pilots precludes the possibility of death or capture of airmen.

The US military began using remote-controlled aircraft in the 1930s — for surveillance and reconnaissance missions. America first employed drones such as AQM-34 Firebee in a combat role during the Vietnam War. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US military increasingly outfitted drones with lethal payloads and deployed them in a variety of locations where it suspected terrorists were residing. Between 2010 and 2020, the US undertook over 14,000 drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

President George W Bush moved swiftly to boost funding for significantly advanced armed drone technology. At the time, the US was focused on counterterrorism strikes against Al-Qaeda as well as Afghan groups in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Under President Barack Obama, the use of armed drones spread globally against suspected terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda, Isis and Boko Haram.

While armed drones gave US troops a leg up in difficult terrains such as Afghanistan as their usage increased, so did the instances in which drones mistakenly targeted and killed civilians. The Obama administration brought the decision-making and approval process for targeting suspected terrorists directly under the US president. After Donald Trump took office, the authority to use armed drones and how and when to employ the capability was delegated back to field commanders. Under President Biden, geographic constraints and final approval authority have changed. While field commanders still retain authority in recognised war zones such as Syria and Iraq, everywhere else, presidential approval is required for targeted drone attacks.

Look no further than Ukraine to witness the impact of armed drones in combat. The 22-month-old war between Russia and Ukraine is nowhere near where most security experts expected it would be. The attempt by one of the world’s most powerful countries to annex a small neighbouring sovereign nation was thwarted because Ukraine acquired the capability to build and operate its own armed drones. Long-range Ukraine drones have attacked Russian air bases 700km away, causing significant damage. Armed Ukraine drones have even hovered over Kremlin, lighting up the night sky over Moscow.

Ukraine’s drone capabilities are dependent on supplies of components from China, which has recently restricted their sale under pressure from Russia, with which it has close ties. US Congress is currently deliberating the American Security Drone Act of 2023, which would limit the purchases of Chinese drone components and ban the sale of China-made drones in the US. “China consistently weaponises its near-monopoly on the drone market against the good guys, restricting drone exports to Ukraine, while Hamas uses them to perpetrate brutal terrorist attacks,” Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher said earlier this month.

To be sure, drones are playing an important part in the Israel-Hamas conflict. Iran has developed an extensive drone industry of its own, using Chinese components and technology, and now supplies drones to Russia in its fight against Ukraine as well as to Iran-backed Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. In recent weeks, several drones sent by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen travelled more than 1,600km in an attempt to strike Israel, only to be intercepted near Jerusalem. A month ago, US troops in Syria shot down a Turkish drone. For its part, Israel has used drones to target — and kill — Hamas and other Palestinian leaders in Gaza and the West Bank.

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Eliminating risk to humans

But are drones as good as they are made out to be in combat zones? Detractors say drones are vulnerable to air defences and electronic warfare systems and can function effectively only in areas in which hostile forces have no presence in the air and possess no surface-to-air missiles. But drones do have the ability to get closer to targets on the ground than a traditional aircraft which enables greater precision in targeting and, as such, reduces the risk of unintentional civilian deaths and property damage.

Drones are also inexpensive compared to fighter jets. The most expensive fighter jet Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor costs US$177 million ($241 million). A toy drone made by China’s DJI Technology costs anything between US$25 and US$300. Armed drones cost between tens of thousands of dollars and US$131 million for the RQ-4 Global Hawk. The costs of maintaining and operating unmanned drones are also far less than manned aircraft, as are the costs of training a remote drone pilot compared to the costs of training a pilot for manned aircraft.

The centrepiece of the Pentagon’s new AI strategy is the Replicator initiative, which envisions swarms of low-cost autonomous, artificially intelligent unmanned weapons that remake the US’s arsenal. Deputy Secretary Hicks called the equipment “attritable”, meaning they can suffer attrition without compromising a mission. The idea is to develop swarms of thousands of drones that can communicate with each other as they move together and collect intelligence. Even if hundreds of them are shot down by the enemy, the rest are still recording information and sending it back to human operators.

The war in Ukraine has proved that a small force with drones can overwhelm a large superpower. Russia rolled out sophisticated US$250,000 surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Ukrainian drones that cost US$25,000 each. Oh, by the way, not all Russian missiles hit their target. Oil prices have been falling too while Russia can only export oil to China and other allies at a 20% discount. Clearly, the maths just doesn’t work.

A good way to get exposure to armed drones is through the high-flying AeroVironment stock. The firm makes Switchblade 600 tactical drones which have a speed of 185 km per hour and can stay aloft for 40 minutes as the operator seeks a target for its armour-piercing warhead. Dubbed “Kamikaze drones” because they smash into their targets and explode, Switchblade 600s which cost US$200,000 apiece are essentially loitering munitions which can abort the mission at any time and focus on another target. Because of their success in Ukraine, Israel recently requested 200 Switchblade 600s from the US. AeroVironment shares have surged 133% since the Ukraine war began last year and are up 17% since the attack on Israel by Hamas last month.

Versatile but increasingly lethal, drones are just a glimpse of what the next-generation battles would look like. Who has an edge in the wars of the future will depend on who is leading in cutting-edge chips which enables a leg up in AI and robotics. For now, the US has a five-year lead on China with its H-100 AI chips designed by Nvidia. Washington’s ban on the export of high-end AI chips as well as chip equipment restricts the ability of competitors such as China to mount a serious commercial challenge with their own AI-powered devices but could also hamper their attempts to build more effective weapons.  

Assif Shameen is a technology and business writer based in North America

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