Welcome to the future.
Key point: AI-controlled (or at least partially-controlled) warships could be used on the front lines of tomorrow’s naval wars. The United States is racing ahead with these technologies and its major rivals are following suit.
The proliferation of robotic warships could make naval warfare safer for human beings. But it also could have the unintended effect of reducing the threshold for military action.
Recent events in the Strait of Hormuz underscore that danger. In the summer of 2019 U.S. and Iranian forces each shot down a surveillance drone belonging to the other side, escalating tensions that began with U.S. president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program.
“The immediate danger from militarized artificial intelligence isn’t hordes of killer robots, nor the exponential pace of a new arms race,” Evan Karlik, a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, wrote for Nikkei Asian Review.
“As recent events in the Strait of Hormuz indicate, the bigger risk is the fact that autonomous military craft make for tempting targets — and increase the potential for miscalculation on and above the high seas,” Karlik wrote.
While less provocative than planes, vehicles, or ships with human crew or troops aboard, unmanned systems are also perceived as relatively expendable. Danger arises when they lower the threshold for military action.
If China dispatched a billion-dollar U.S. destroyer and a portion of its crew to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait, a war declaration from Washington and mobilization to the region would undoubtedly follow. But should a Chinese missile suddenly destroy an orbiting, billion-dollar U.S. intelligence satellite, the White House and the U.S. Congress might opt to avoid immediate escalation.
“Satellites have no mothers,” quip space policy experts, and the same is true for airborne drones and unmanned ships. Their demise does not call for pallbearers, headstones or memorial statues.
As autonomous systems proliferate in the air and on the ocean, military commanders may feel emboldened to strike these platforms, expecting lower repercussions by avoiding the loss of human life.