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The drone battle that could lead to a new arms race

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British soldiers practice with drones. The US and China have started an arms race in developing cheap self-propelled drones that are highly effective in war. Photo: AP / NTB

Of NTB | 16.04.2024 05:43:01

Policy: According to the AP news agency, the military envisages battles in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of drones are used in coordinated attacks.

Some will reconnoiter, others will attack and still others will kill people.

According to the news agency, additional drones will point out new targets in the middle of a battle based on programming and artificial intelligence (AI) – not on direct orders from a human.

Drone technology is much more difficult to use as a deterrent than nuclear weapons were, experts point out. It is also far more affordable for smaller nations and military groups to acquire their own swarm of self-propelled drones than to develop their own nuclear weapons.

The US military is pushing hard to develop cheap drones which may be sacrificed as a countermeasure against China’s claim to control of Taiwan. Washington says it has no choice but to follow China’s developments.

China, for its part, says that weapons with artificial intelligence are inevitable, and therefore China must also develop AI weapons.

– The uncontrolled spread of swarm technology can lead to more instability and conflict in the world, says Margarita Konajev, analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

It is unknown who has the upper hand in the US and China. A survey from Georgetown published last year shows that more than a third of all US and Chinese contracts over eight months in 2020 were orders for intelligent unmanned systems.

In a call for unmanned “interceptors”, these are the specifications the Pentagon announced for:

“The drones must have been able to advance tens of miles in hostile waters, be able to work in groups in water without GPS, have a payload of 500 kilograms, be able to attack at a speed of up to 65 kilometers per hour and be responsible for complex autonomous behavior in order to be able to adapt know the target’s evasion tactics’.

“During an urban warfare exercise at the Fort Campbell military base in Tennessee in 2021, more than 100 low-cost air and ground drones were controlled by an operator”.

The top manager of the software company Auterion, Lorenz Meier, says in an interview that they are preparing for a single operator to operate five to six drones at the same time. But he expects a rapid increase to a dozen drones and to several hundred drones per operator within a year.

The Chinese have expressed that they will not be outmaneuvered in the intense arms race. In an official video China’s military claims its drones “sorted themselves out” when communications were disrupted by jamming.

The Chinese further claim that their drones regrouped, switched to autonomous control and carried out the mission without control.

They believe it is necessary and envisage the following China scenario: The Chinese invade Taiwan and prevent American intervention with wave after wave of drones at sea and in the air.

CIA Director William Burns said a year ago that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. However, that does not mean an invasion is imminent, he pointed out.

Shortly before he died last October, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged China and the US to work towards a non-proliferation agreement on AI weapons.

– They must do something while it is still possible. Restraint with AI must occur before it is woven into the security fabric, Kissinger wrote in one statement together with Graham Alison at Harvard University.

Other countries that also develop the technology may spread the automatic lethal weapons. Here, countries such as Russia, Israel, Iran and Turkey are highlighted.

In an American test program for assistance to infantry in urban areas, called Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics, the pilots were able to handle up to 133 drones on the ground and in the air simultaneously. The drones were programmed to operate semi-autonomously with, among other things, indoor reconnaissance and simulated killing of enemies.

– I would characterize this as interaction under supervision. The human can stop the order or tactic. But when an attack is launched, the drones operate on their own, says project coordinator Julie Adams.

The arms race between the AI ​​superpowers can be reminiscent of the Cold War. But there are also big differences.

The UN has for more than a decade tried in vain to achieve this an agreement on the non-proliferation of intelligent drones. The UN wants restrictions such as a ban on using civilians as targets and a ban on using drone swarms for ethnic cleansing.

It is unclear how many drones in a swarm can be operated by a single person. But a recently released Pentagon-backed military study gives a hint:

The “Hawks”, people who lead an aggressive policy, preferably foreign policy, in Washington are pushing more and more for the production of drone swarms.

There is a danger that China will offer swarm technology to enemies of the United States, several American experts point out. Or it could be stolen.

(© NTB)

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