Kyiv: Drone advances in Ukraine have accelerated a long-anticipated technology trend that could soon bring the world’s first fully autonomous fighting robots to the battlefield, inaugurating a new age of warfare. The longer the war lasts, the more likely it becomes that drones will be used to identify, select and attack targets without help from humans, according to military analysts, combatants and artificial intelligence researchers. That would mark a revolution in military technology as profound as the introduction of the machine gun.
Ukraine already has semi-autonomous attack drones and counter-drone weapons endowed with AI. Russia also claims to possess AI weaponry. But there are no confirmed instances of a nation putting into combat robots that have killed entirely on their own. Experts say it may be only a matter of time before either Russia or Ukraine, or both, deploy them. “Many states are developing this technology,” said Zachary Kallenborn, a George Mason University weapons innovation analyst. “Clearly, it’s not all that difficult.”
Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, agrees that fully autonomous killer drones are “a logical and inevitable next step” in weapons development. He said Ukraine has been doing “a lot of R&D in this direction.” “I think that the potential for this is great in the next six months,” Fedorov said in a recent interview. Ukrainian Lt Col Yaroslav Honchar, co-founder of the combat drone innovation nonprofit Aerorozvidka, said in a recent interview near the front that human war fighters simply cannot process information and make decisions as quickly as machines. Ukrainian military leaders currently prohibit the use of fully independent lethal weapons, although that could change, he said.
Russia could obtain autonomous AI from Iran or elsewhere. The long-range Shahed-136 exploding drones supplied by Iran have crippled Ukrainian power plants and terrorised civilians but are not especially smart. Iran has other drones in its evolving arsenal that it says feature AI. Without a great deal of trouble, Ukraine could make its semi-autonomous weaponised drones fully independent in order to better survive battlefield jamming, their Western manufacturers say. Those drones include the US-made Switchblade 600 and the Polish Warmate, which both currently require a human to choose targets over a live video feed. AI finishes the job. The drones, technically known as “loitering munitions,” can hover for minutes over a target, awaiting a clean shot.
“The technology to achieve a fully autonomous mission with Switchblade pretty much exists today,” said Wahid Nawabi, CEO of AeroVironment, its maker. That will require a policy change – to remove the human from the decision-making loop – that he estimates is three years away. Drones can already recognise targets such as armoured vehicles using cataloged images. But there is disagreement over whether the technology is reliable enough to ensure that the machines don’t err and take the lives of noncombatants.
The AP asked the defence ministries of Ukraine and Russia if they have used autonomous weapons offensively – and whether they would agree not to use them if the other side similarly agreed. Neither responded. If either side were to go on the attack with full AI, it might not even be a first. An inconclusive UN report last year suggested that killer robots debuted in Libya’s internecine conflict in 2020, when Turkish-made Kargu-2 drones in full-automatic mode killed an unspecified number of combatants. A spokesman for STM, the manufacturer, said the report was based on “speculative, unverified” information. He told the AP the Kargu-2 cannot attack a target until the operator tells it to do so. ap