Future wars: Artificial Intelligence, drones and cyber weapons by Col SC Tyagi (Retd),
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Israel has shown the way how to use AI during the war and has even referred to it as the “First Artificial Intelligence War” against Hamas during its operation Guardian of the Walls.
(A perceptible change, in the way a war is conducted, is clearly visible on the horizon and we must look at and reset, reconfigure key components and key tactics or strategy. Photo source: Keshav S)
Watching the videos of swarms of drones as autonomous aerial weapons reportedly used by Azerbaijan during last year’s war with neighboring Armenia, in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, and the recent Israelis – Hamas conflict using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to pinpoint destroy the targets deep inside Gaza or the ‘Iron Dome’ successfully beating back the Rockets fire assaults, makes us believe the warfare has come a long way. Israel has shown the way how to use AI during the war and have even referred to it as the “The First Artificial Intelligence War” against Hamas during its operation Guardian of the Walls. Supercomputing was extensively used and they heavily relied upon machine learning and data collection. Instead of using the land army or even the air force, AI was the key component and force multiplier for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) said the Jerusalem Post, quoting an IDF officer. These two recent examples exemplify the redundancy and obsolescence of many weapons of war and even impinge upon the traditional strategy and tactics world plans to fight the next war. Oft spoken phrase “we generally make plans to fight the last war’ needs to be taken a serious note of and rather look ahead at what the future world war would look like. If we were to visualize what the components may be – certainly the AI will be one of the important ingredients and the others will include Cyber weapons, Drones, Loitering Munitions, Ballistic missiles and Space based satellites in addition to the existing weapon platforms in the next world war.
Let’s first look back at the path we have traversed. Wars have been fought ever since the idea of tribes was born. It has graduated from tribal wars to States fighting and nations going to war. Reasons for going to wars were either vanity, women, wealth, religion or grabbing a piece of rich and fertile land and thereafter to rule the land and its people. Arrows, lances, swords, machetes gave way to rifles and later to guns as the weapons of war. Two World Wars have been fought that devastated large swathes causing untold miseries to mankind. Emergence of tanks, artillery and rockets were extensively used by the end of the Second World War. Nuclear Bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki capped the last World War. The Air Force and Navies have now started governing the aerospace and the seas respectively. But, one of the things common in all the wars is that the warfare is constantly changing, evolving and adopting innovative ideas and technology to be victorious. New dimensions, space and cyber, have already been added. Possibilities of use of chemical and bio war can’t be easily denied today despite a number of treaties in vogue. Shape of the next world war, whenever it takes place, is looming large ahead of us and we must look ahead and prepare.
A perceptible change, in the way a war is conducted, is clearly visible on the horizon and we must look at and reset, reconfigure key components and key tactics or strategy. New dimensions, space and cyber, have already been added. Introduction of drones, loitering munitions and AI are the new game changers. Loitering munitions, Israel made Harop, was used in Armenia by Azerbaijan and it gives us an idea of their pinpoint destruction capability without the use of traditional weapons and the psychological effects these can cause.
Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities in the Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked with bomb-laden drones in September 2019 and Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed to have used them. Actually, the use of drones gained prominence when the USA started using it against its “war on terror”. The USA extensively used drone strikes against targets as part of the ‘War on Terror’. Most of us have seen the videos of such attacks widely circulated on social media. Successes achieved by the Americans, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the IDF in the regional wars added a new dimension to the concept of war and soon the research and developments and the process to acquire or possess these weapons began in Russia and China, Turkey, Pakistan and India. None of these countries want to be left behind in the race for similar capability. Recent Army Day Parade held in Delhi has demonstrated India’s willingness and its capabilities.
Advent of the era of swarms of drones in the AI enabled autonomous mode and other airborne Lethal Autonomous Robots (LARs), Israeli Iron Dome like capability to shoot down the incoming Rockets will completely change the battlefield. A new looking Infantry equipped with technologically advanced gadgets, weapons and modern logistics will appear on the scene for decision making when required or to consolidate the gain. Drones shooting down the enemy soldier are coming up and the days for hand to hand battle are fast receding into the background. Infantry will have a new avatar and new roles to play.
Does this mean the days of conventional wars are over? Not yet; the tanks, mechanized columns and artillery will still be useful but the role and employment will differ and it will not be set piece drills based upon the desired target or aim. Destruction of enemies’ war making potential will need several means including the air force, navy and space based capabilities with AI leading from the front. Cyber intelligence and data collection will go along hand in hand. Remember the Iranian nuclear facility destroyed in Natanz? It all began with the GPS coordinates uncovered through a picture taken in the desert with another known nuclear Scientist and posted on Social Media by one of the Iranian Scientists. The picture provided the GPS coordinates and the place was confirmed to be the nuclear facility in Iran. Natanz Uranium enrichment facility had air gapped the area with no Internet connections with the outside world. Air gap was breached by Stuxnet which destroyed centrifuges to burn themselves out: it is considered to be the first cyber weapon today. An enhanced version of it might be on the drawing boards.
Trends Likely to dominate the next war
John Naisbitt once said, “Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction that you are headed”. Seeing the current trends, it is believed that the key trends in wars ahead would be the extensive use of AI, Drones, cyber weapons and use of killer apps, space based control of surveillance and creation of a defensive umbrella with offensive capabilities, Iron Dome like capabilities and the use of Lethal Autonomous Robots to kill. Let us see some of these key trends and extrapolate their images into future wars.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
If the Israel-Hamas war is any indicator, AI will play a major role in the conflicts ahead. As per the media reports, Israel had gathered data for more than two years when it could be used in the latest war. The world over, gathering of mass datasets has already begun and data is considered to be the new gold. Countries like China are already believed to be gathering data for quite some time for future military use. It is believed that there is a company in the US which is only investing in the collection of data. Big data requires interpretation and predictive analyses. The results are then verified for its accuracy and then used in the AI algorithm. Let’s look at one of the possible tasks in the current Indian context; the task of preventing crossing of the border by the terrorists or the enemy. A set of interconnected AI Bots deployed all along the Line of Control or at selected places on the border, with weapons under control placed on ground will make the arduous task simpler, off course man over riding the machine mix will have to be fused in. There will be 24X7 surveillance and the drones will come in handy for it and pass on the information to the bots for further action. Similarly, there will be AI enabled autonomous systems to conduct specific missions, all you need is to visualize them now and create autonomous systems. AI will enable the military in automating tasks and assist in making them better and taking quicker decisions.
The latest war between Azerbaijan and Armenia witnessed the furious dance of loitering munitions and swarms of drones filling up the sky and causing havoc without sending out the Infantry, Tanks or Mechanized columns on ground in a large number; an unthinkable war scene a couple of years back. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) or simply called Combat Drones carried bombs and missiles under varying levels of autonomy i.e. under real-time soldier controlled or programmed to deliver the ordnance autonomously, thus assuming a standoff role and depersonalizing the decision to attack. Recently, a drone dropping a bomb in Jammu on the airport is an example of it; let us not relegate it to a mere terror act, it is a precursor to bigger changes coming into the battlefield. Imagine an Infantry platoon attacking against a similar number of Combat Drones equipped with bombs, missiles and even automatic machine guns! Chances are that the latter would cause maximum damage with the least amount of casualties and execute it with greater precision and effects. This day is not very far off when it could soon be a reality.
Stuxnet, widely believed to be jointly developed by the intelligence agencies of USA and Israel, was used against Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility, and as such introduced cyber weapons to the war machinery. Similar weapons are not too far off and might be ready to go ahead. Also, Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) pose a challenge to the effective and uninterrupted communication and surveillance mechanism, so vital to win a war. China has already got another Great Wall – the Great Firewall. PLA actively supports secret cyber intelligence units. If the communication equipment, radars, remote fire mechanism and controls are hacked or blocked, the war is already tilted in favor of the enemy. There are Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), a system of software and hardware elements that allows the military units to control the firing mechanism locally or at remote locations, when interrupted will cause enormous failure of the war efforts. The research and development is in the advanced stage in developing the Quantum Computing, once perfected it would perhaps provide considerable relief to the users of the cyber world.
The world is moving fast and there are other worrying trends such as the use of Crypto currency, which is allowing terrorists to transfer funds or pay for acquisition of weapons without a trace of who paid whom without using the well-established financial institutions like the Banks. Space based satellites and navigation setup are both useful as well as vulnerable and will play an important role in the future war. Today the technology is no more evolutionary from one version to another but it is leaping ahead, as Peter Warren Singer, a Cyber expert mentioned recently.
Disruptive technologies are changing the world rapidly. The good news is that ethical questions are being debated in San Francisco, the AI capital of the world, as to how far the technology should be allowed to be autonomous and whether the software designers and engineers need to have a code of conduct. But the day is not very far off when we see a new type of war clouds engulf us. A beginning is made, only the future will reveal how many of these trends will further change the shape of the next world war.
(The author has served in the Government at various levels and has served the Indian Army for more than three decades. He has authored “The Kargil Victory: Battles from Peak to Peak”, “The Fourth Estate: A Force multiplier”. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of STRIVE) (Article was published in Financial Times)
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.