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US military plans to unleash 1000’s of autonomous war robots over next two years

The United States military plans to begin using 1000’s of autonomous weapons systems in the subsequent two years in a bid to counter China’s growing power, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced in a speech on Monday.

The so-called Replicator initiative goals to work with defence and other tech corporations to provide high volumes of inexpensive systems for all branches of the military.

Military systems capable of assorted degrees of independent operation have turn into increasingly common over the past decade or so. But the size and scope of the US announcement makes clear the longer term of conflict has modified: the age of warfighting robots is upon us.

An idea whose time has come

Over the past decade, there was considerable development of advanced robotic systems for military purposes. Many of those have been based on modifying industrial technology, which itself has turn into more capable, cheaper and more widely available.

More recently, the main focus has shifted onto experimenting with learn how to best use these in combat. Russia’s war in Ukraine has demonstrated that the technology is prepared for real-world deployment.

Loitering munitions, a type of robot air vehicle, have been widely used to seek out and attack armoured vehicles and artillery. Ukrainian naval attack drones have paralysed Russia’s Black Sea fleet, forcing their crewed warships to remain in port.

Military robots are an idea whose time has come.

Robots all over the place

In her speech, Hicks talked of a perceived urgent need to alter how wars are fought. She declared, in somewhat impenetrable Pentagon-speak, that the brand new Replicator program would

field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple 1000’s, in multiple domains, inside the subsequent 18 to 24 months.

Decoding this, “autonomous” means a robot that may perform complex military missions without human intervention.

“Attritable” means the robot is reasonable enough that it might probably be placed in danger and lost if the mission is of high priority. Such a robot isn’t quite designed to be disposable, however it can be reasonably inexpensive so many might be bought and combat losses replaced.

Finally, “multiple domains” means robots on land, at sea, within the air and in space. In short, robots all over the place for every kind of tasks.

The robot mission

For the US military, Russia is an “acute threat” but China is the “pacing challenge” against which to benchmark its military capabilities.

China’s People’s Liberation Army is seen as having a big advantage by way of “mass”: it has more people, more tanks, more ships, more missiles and so forth. The US could have better-quality equipment, but China wins on quantity.

By quickly constructing 1000’s of “attritable autonomous systems”, the Replicator program will now give the US the numbers considered obligatory to win future major wars.

The imagined future war of most concern is a hypothetical battle for Taiwan, which some postulate could soon begin. Recent tabletop wargames have suggested large swarms of robots could possibly be the decisive element for the US in defeating any major Chinese invasion.

However, Replicator can also be looking further ahead, and goals to institutionalise mass production of robots for the long run. Hicks argues:

We must ensure [China’s] leadership wakes up each day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, “today isn’t the day” — and not only today, but each day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond.

A brave latest world?

One great concern about autonomous systems is whether or not their use can conform to the laws of armed conflict.

Optimists argue robots might be fastidiously programmed to follow rules, and in the warmth and confusion of combat they might even obey higher than humans.

Pessimists counter by noting not all situations might be foreseen, and robots may misunderstand and attack once they mustn’t. They have a degree.

Among earlier autonomous military systems, the Phalanx close-in point defence gun and the Patriot surface-to-air missile have each misperformed.

Used just once in combat, throughout the first Gulf War in 1991, the Phalanx fired at a chaff decoy cloud somewhat than countering the attacking anti-ship missile. The more modern Patriot has proven effective in shooting down attacking ballistic missiles, but additionally twice shot down friendly aircraft throughout the second Gulf War in 2003, killing their human crews.

Clever design may overcome such problems in future autonomous systems. However, Hicks promised a “responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems” in her speech – which suggests any system in a position to kill targets will still need formal authorisation from a human to achieve this.

A world change

The US would be the first nation to field large numbers of autonomous systems, but other countries will likely be close behind. China is an obvious candidate, with great strength in each artificial intelligence and combat drone production.

However, because much of the technology behind autonomous military drones has been developed for civilian purposes, it’s widely available and comparatively low cost. Autonomous military systems usually are not only for the good powers, but could also soon be fielded by many middle and smaller powers.

Libya and Israel, amongst others, have reportedly deployed autonomous weapons, and Turkish-made drones have proved vital within the Ukraine war.

Australia is one other country keenly excited about the probabilities of autonomous weapons. The Australian Defence Force is today constructing the MQ-28 Ghostbat autonomous fast jet air vehicle, robot mechanised armoured vehicles, robot logistic trucks and robot submarines, and is already using the Bluebottle robot sailboat for maritime border surveillance within the Timor Sea.

And in a move that foreshadowed the Replicator initiative, the Australian government last month called for local corporations to suggest how they may construct very large numbers of military aerial drones in-country in the subsequent few years.

At least one Australian company, SYPAQ, is already on the move, sending quite a lot of its low cost, cardboard-bodied drones to bolster Ukraine’s defences.


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