February 26, 2024

The global race for autonomous military supremacy

In my 2015 research with General John R. Allen on the concept of Hyperwar, we recognized the potential of artificial intelligence to immutably change the battlefield. The main examples of autonomous systems have been drone swarms, which pose both a significant threat and a crucial military capability. Today, Hyperwar appears to be the operational paradigm accepted as a de facto reality by militaries around the world. The observer-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop is indeed collapsing. All kinds of weapon systems and sensors will have greater autonomy. Work is underway to develop systems that will further reduce response times and increase the mass of autonomous systems deployed in conflicts. This trend is powerfully highlighted by the US Replicator initiative and China’s rapid progress in automated manufacturing and missile technologies.

The US Replicator Initiative: A Commitment to Autonomous Warfare?

The Pentagon’s ‘Replicator’ initiative is a strategic move to counter adversaries like China by quickly producing ‘attractive autonomous systems’ across multiple domains. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks emphasized the need for platforms that are “small, smart, cheap and plentiful,” planning to produce thousands of such systems within 18 to 24 months. As part of this initiative, the Ministry of Defense is developing smaller, more intelligent and more cost-effective platforms, a step that is in line with the creation of a Hyperwar environment.

The initiative’s rapid timeline has drawn criticism, most notably from Anna Hehir of the Future of Life Institute (FLI), who points out that such rapid implementation could be overwhelming and may lack sufficient human oversight for the large number of people involved systems. The Replicator initiative has reignited debates over the ethical use of ‘killer robots’ or autonomous weapon systems. Critics worry about the potential loss of life and escalation of conflict due to AI-powered systems. These autonomous weapons, which can operate independently, are of concern to many, especially because they could cause unintended escalations of the war.

China’s Countermeasures: Automated Manufacturing and Missile Advancement

The Replicator program is not only opposed on ethical grounds in the United States. There is also more direct competition. In response to the US initiative, China previewed the improvements made to its automated-scale production capabilities, focusing on military applications such as the production of engines for cruise missiles and drones. In a video released on X, the representative of a Chinese defense manufacturer demonstrates the production of cruise missiles and drone turbojet engines in a fully automated facility. A video from the engine factory reveals an advanced process in which robotic arms and five-axis machines work together to control the link beam. This automation not only improves production efficiency, but also improves reliability, marking a significant step forward in China’s military production capabilities.

The new Chinese systems, which are mass-produced in automated factories like this, can be deployed independently, but can also be combined with advanced manned platforms. For example, to enhance its strategic capabilities, China has integrated advanced fighter aircraft such as the Chengdu J-10C, Shenyang J-16 and the Chengdu J-20 with advanced missiles such as the AKF-98 and KD-88 series. These aircraft now play a central role in China’s air force and are equipped with active electronically scanned array radars (AESA) and long-range air-to-air missiles such as the PL-15, increasing their operational capabilities.

The AKF-98 stealth cruise missile, with a range of about 1000 km, and its more affordable counterparts, the KD-88C and KD-88A, represent China’s ability to produce a spectrum of missiles for various strategic purposes, in line with the concept of Hyperwar.

We find ourselves in a new global competitive dynamic in which US military efforts are immediately matched by China, whose growing domestic technological capabilities and decades of mastery of scale production make it a powerful competitor.

US Unmanned Systems: Cost Issues and CCA Program

U.S. efforts to develop unmanned systems are — unsurprisingly given the history of U.S. defense projects — facing cost challenges. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall stated that the future Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) drones, part of the larger Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) initiative, are intended to kill a fraction (one-quarter to one-third) of the F- 35 to cost. Joint attack fighter. But given the astronomical ~$100 million price of the F-35, even at these fractional prices, the unit cost remains extremely high and not appropriate for actual mass. The CCA program aims to produce drones with a high degree of autonomy, designed to complement manned combat aircraft. This approach is powerful and, as our writing on Hyperwar shows, can reduce the need to train flight crews and simplify logistics. That said, the training advantage today lies with the United States. The powerful autonomous systems used by both parties are therefore capable of matching the current training lead. The net winner could well be the Chinese. If our autonomous systems are also much more expensive than Chinese products, you wonder how we can hold our own in a possible competitive battle. As a nation, we need to figure out how to produce affordable, yet cutting-edge products. And that also includes autonomous unmanned combat aircraft!

The future landscape of Hyperwar

Advances in drone technology are not limited to superpowers like the US and China. Countries such as Turkiye and Iran are also developing significant unmanned warfare capabilities. This global proliferation points to a new reality; Middle powers, if they focus on their production capabilities, can develop powerful, accurate power projection capabilities on a large scale. Gone are the days when the aircraft carrier was the only way to “visit” a warring nation not contiguous to its borders. A Shahed drone with a range of 2,000 km can do the same. And a swarm can be a real threat.

The US Replicator Initiative and China’s rapid progress are proof of the inevitability of Hyperwar. Since we first wrote about this concept in 2015, so much water has flown under the proverbial bridge and so many conflicts – from Libya to Syria, to Ukraine and now in Gaza – demonstrate the power of small, cheap and increasingly autonomous systems . This new era of warfare requires agility, technological superiority, low-cost mass production and rapid adaptability. However, it also brings to the fore the moral and ethical implications of autonomous systems, particularly the need for states to comply with the laws of war and international humanitarian law. These include that civilians are not targeted, that the response is clearly proportionate, and that the presence of a few combatants within a general civilian population does not justify targeting the civilian population as a whole.

Autonomy, yes. Irresponsibility, no.

While autonomous weapons can make some decisions on their own, their deployment by a nation or group subjects their bearer to the responsibility of adhering to the laws of war. The fact that the weapons are autonomous does not mean that their employers and activators are exempt from humanitarian laws. And it’s not true

If there are no reasonable laws; the international community simply needs to get serious about implementing it.

As autonomous weapons are built in greater numbers, global organizations should focus not on the things they can’t do – such as banning the development of AI – but on the things they can. Such as imposing punishments on those who violate the laws of war.

The unfolding era of Hyperwar, driven by initiatives such as the US Replicator program and the global responses to it, highlights the twin imperatives of technological innovation, ethical considerations, and human responsibility. The challenges of maintaining a balance between advancing military capabilities and ensuring unequivocal compliance with the laws of war will be a defining feature of this new era of warfare.

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