“Ukraine’s rapid progress in drone technology is hastening the inevitable development of full autonomous fighting drones and robots, heralding a new era of warfare.
The longer the war lasts, the more likely it becomes that drones will be used to identify, select and attack targets without help from humans, according to military analysts, combatants and artificial intelligence researchers.
That would mark a revolution in military technology as profound as the introduction of the machine gun. Ukraine already has semi-autonomous attack drones and counter-drone weapons endowed with AI. Russia also claims to possess AI weaponry, though the claims are unproven. But there are no confirmed instances of a nation putting into combat robots that have killed entirely on their own.
Experts say it may be only a matter of time before either Russia or Ukraine, or both, deploy them.
“Many states are developing this technology,” said Zachary Kallenborn, a George Mason University weapons innovation analyst. ”Clearly, it’s not all that difficult.”
The sense of inevitability extends to activists, who have tried for years to ban killer drones but now believe they must settle for trying to restrict the weapons’ offensive use.
Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, agrees that fully autonomous fighting drones are “a logical and inevitable next step” in weapons development. He said Ukraine has been doing “a lot of R&D in this direction.”
“I think that the potential for this is great in the next six months,” Fedorov told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Ukrainian Lt. Col. Yaroslav Honchar, co-founder of the combat drone innovation nonprofit Aerorozvidka, said in a recent interview near the front that human war fighters simply cannot process information and make decisions as quickly as machines.
Ukrainian military leaders currently prohibit the use of fully independent lethal weapons, although that could change, he said.
“We have not crossed this line yet – and I say ‘yet’ because I don’t know what will happen in the future.” said Honchar, whose group has spearheaded drone innovation in Ukraine, converting cheap commercial drones into lethal weapons.
Russia could obtain autonomous AI from Iran or elsewhere. The long-range Shahed-136 exploding drones supplied by Iran have crippled Ukrainian power plants and terrorized civilians but are not especially smart. Iran has other drones in its evolving arsenal that it says feature AI.
Without a great deal of trouble, Ukraine could make its semi-autonomous weaponized drones fully independent in order to better survive battlefield jamming, their Western manufacturers say.
Those drones include the U.S.-made Switchblade 600 and the Polish Warmate, which both currently require a human to choose targets over a live video feed. AI finishes the job. The drones, technically known as “loitering munitions,” can hover for minutes over a target, awaiting a clean shot.
“The technology to achieve a fully autonomous mission with Switchblade pretty much exists today,” said Wahid Nawabi, CEO of AeroVironment, its maker. That will require a policy change — to remove the human from the decision-making loop — that he estimates is three years away.
Fully autonomous fighting drones can already recognize targets such as armored vehicles using cataloged images. But there is disagreement over whether the technology is reliable enough to ensure that the machines don’t err and take the lives of noncombatants.
If either side were to go on the attack with full AI, it might not even be a first.
An inconclusive U.N. report suggested that killer robots debuted in Libya’s internecine conflict in 2020, when Turkish-made Kargu-2 drones in full-automatic mode killed an unspecified number of combatants.