AI And The Future Of The Military: The Rise Of AI-Powered Warfare And Its Ethical Implications

The adoption of AI-enhanced military technologies by different countries can vary in terms of the level of decision-making (tactical or strategic) and the type of oversight (human or machine). Countries can optimize algorithms to perform tactical operations on the battlefield or conduct strategic deliberations in support of overall war aims. Tactically, such technologies can enhance the lethality of field commanders by rapidly analyzing large quantities of data drawn from sensors distributed across the battlefield to generate targeting options faster than adversaries. As cybersecurity expert Jon Lindsay puts it, “combat might be modeled as a game that is won by destroying more enemies while preserving more friendlies.” This is achieved by significantly shortening the “sensor-to-shooter” timeline, which corresponds to the interval of time between acquiring and prosecuting a target. The US Defense Department’s Task Force Lima and Project Maven are both examples of such AI applications.

Strategically, AI-enhanced military technologies can also help political and military leaders synchronize key objectives (ends) with a combination of warfighting approaches (ways) and finite resources (means), including materiel and personnel. New capabilities could even emerge and replace humans in future military operations, including for crafting strategic direction and national-level strategies. As one expert argues, AI has already demonstrated the potential “to engage in complex analyses and strategizing comparable to that required to wage war.”

At the same time, countries can also calibrate the type of oversight or control delegated to AI-enhanced military technologies. These technologies can be designed to allow for greater human oversight, affording enhanced agency over decision-making. Such systems are often called semi-autonomous, meaning they remain under human control. This pattern of oversight characterizes how most AI-enhanced weapons systems, such as the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone, currently operate. While the Reaper can fly on autopilot, accounting for changes in the topography and weather conditions to adjust its altitude and speed, humans still make the targeting decisions.

Countries can also design AI-enhanced military technologies with less human oversight. These systems are often referred to as “killer robots” because the human is off the loop. In these applications, humans exercise limited, if any, oversight, even for targeting decisions. Variation in the decision-making level and type of oversight suggests four types of warfare that could emerge globally given the adoption of AI-enhanced military technologies.