US Bets on Data-Driven and AI-Empowered Warfare to Counter China

Throughout human history, technological progress has been translated into military prowess. In most instances, the states that have been able to incorporate new technologies more quickly and effectively into their respective militaries have gained a significant advantage over their adversaries. The same is likely to be true for artificial intelligence (AI), with the US and China currently locked in a competition for global AI superiority. This competition, for AI and technological supremacy, could very well dictate the future global landscape.

Although China might disagree with the existence of such a technological competition, the US firmly believes in it. This was evident from a speech delivered by US Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen Hicks, on August 28, 2023. Deputy Secretary Hicks’ speech was significant for a number of reasons, primarily because it gave valuable insight into the US military’s strategic thinking in both the immediate and long-term. Deputy Secretary Hicks discussed how the US viewed China, AI and autonomous systems, technological innovation, and a range of other issues.

At the core of Deputy Secretary Hicks’ speech was that the US Department of Defence (DOD) aimed to have a “data-driven and AI-empowered military”. Although AI has gained mainstream popularity within the past few years, major states have been looking into the military applications of AI for decades now. From 2014 onwards, when the US announced its Third Offset Strategy, the US has been building the foundation for the eventual incorporation of AI into its military. The 2021 report by the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) was perhaps the most telling of US strategic thinking towards AI. The NSCAI report stated that the US DOD was far from “AI-ready”, urgeing it to heavily increase investment in AI by 2025 and “integrate AI-enabled technologies into every facet of war-fighting”. It is this same philosophy that Deputy Secretary Hicks alluded to in her speech.

Deputy Secretary Hicks announced the “Replicator Initiative”, which she described as a new DOD initiative to quickly develop and field “swarms of low-cost air, land or sea drones that could swarm an enemy”. She called it a “big bet” that could counter China’s biggest advantage – the ability to bring a mass of platforms and people to the battlefield. The DOD hoped to leverage “attritable, autonomous systems in all domains — which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times”.

The initiative would focus on platforms that are “small, smart, cheap, and many”. The immediate objective of the Replicator Initiative is for the US military to “field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18 to 24 months,” Hicks said. This statement deserves thorough analysis, as there are several claims being made.

Firstly, the scale of the autonomous systems being in the multiple thousands and the application of the systems being across multiple domains, indicates that the US very much sees drones and autonomous systems as being crucial for its future war-fighting and military operations. With the US currently being the technological hub of the world, the widespread use of autonomous systems by the US military would likely cause other states to adopt such systems to maintain strategic parity with their adversaries. The Replicator Initiative also mentioned that the US was working towards collaboration and integration with allies and partners, meaning that autonomous systems would likely proliferate to its friendly states.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the stated timeline, within the next 18 to 24 months. This is rather alarming, particularly given that issues surrounding AI ethics and regulation have gathered momentum in recent months. Although the US claims to be following a “responsible and ethical” approach to AI in its Replicator Initiative, the specified timeline makes these claims hard to believe. However, it is also pertinent to note that the US military has likely been working on this initiative for quite some time, so it would have certain rules in place to prevent the negative aspects of AI in the military. To what extent AI norms and regulations would actually matter in a crisis situation, however, is a debate for another day.

Even if the US had been planning such an initiative for years, it seems that it now feels confident enough to announce and implement it. Ukraine has acted as a testing ground for the use of drones and autonomous systems on the battlefield, and has certainly demonstrated the power of these systems to major states. Drones have been regularly used by both Russia and Ukraine, with RUSI estimating that Ukraine has lost a staggering 10,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) per month against Russia. These drones have been used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes, as well as for direct targeting of the adversary’s military and civilian infrastructure.

Deputy Secretary Hicks also directly mentioned China as being the sole target of the Replicator Initiative. She added: “We must ensure the PRC (People’s Republic of China) leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, ‘today is not the day’ – and not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond”. She also mentioned that “all-domain, attritable autonomous systems (ADA2) will help overcome the challenge of anti-access, area-denial systems (A2AD). Our ADA2 to thwart their A2AD”. This is a critical point. China’s A2AD strategy is primarily focused on the South China Sea. The US stating that it would use drones to counter China’s A2AD strategy gives a clear indication that the US is willing, directly or indirectly, to militarily intervene in the region. This is another alarming statement, especially considering the growing tensions between the US and China, surrounding Taiwan.

China, on the other hand, holds a completely different understanding of AI than the US does. Although China aims to become the global leader of AI by 2030, it has so far been characteristically secretive about its military incorporation of AI. This, however, has not stopped the US from seeing China’s AI progress as being a major challenge to the future global leadership role of the US.

Ultimately, the reality is that future warfare will certainly be data-driven and AI-enabled, and it already is in many ways. However, the dangers of integrating AI into autonomous military systems need to be understood. Given the rapid pace of advancements being made in AI, and the importance given to the military applications of AI by major states, the incorporation of AI into their militaries is a matter of when, not if. Deputy Secretary Hicks’ speech mentioned the impact of the Replicator Initiative on the speed and scale of the US military several times. That will likely be the character of future warfare: it will be fought at a rapid pace, and human combatants will operate alongside a large number of autonomous systems. Although this might seem to be a more effective method of warfighting for some, the risk of escalation would be tremendous, particularly if militaries move towards human-out-of-the-loop AI.

Shayan Hassan Jamy

The writer is currently enrolled in MS Strategic Studies program at the Air University Islamabad. He has an interest in Artificial Intelligence, emerging technologies and global power competition.

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