Because the human is slower and less physically hardy than the robot in the battlespace, as AI and robotics advance—as is already rapidly happening—so the human will be swiftly expelled from the battlespace. This is a good thing overall, as no officer will have to write a letter of condolence to the parents of a drone or robot, but there are obviously worrying implications too.

The human who is presently “in the loop” working the actual weaponry will in the future simply become the human “on the loop,” who writes the algorithms by which the robot operates. So long as that human remains in ultimate control of the system, albeit without taking any actual operational decisions during the fighting itself, the war will be won by whichever side writes the better code.

This is presently much to the advantage of the more innovative and cutting-edge West, with its state-of-the-art tech companies. Yet it also means that the West must stay ahead forever, or at least until the threat from China recedes.

The process of expelling the human from the battlespace is already well advanced: in flight simulations, for example, fighter aircraft without humans piloting them regularly shoot down those that do. Robots feel no fear, remorse, pity, or cowardice, and they don’t need to sleep. That they will sooner rather than later dominate the battlespace is not a wild, sci fi, Terminator movie idea. It is already well underway.

In wars of the future, drones will fight other drones, and the more hi-tech the armed forces, the greater the chance of victory. Just as bows and arrows defeated slingshots, chariots and horses with stirrups defeated infantry, gunpowder defeated longbows, cannon reduced castles, and the nuclear bomb crushed Imperial Japan, so this new technology will utterly alter warfare.

Although drones were employed extensively in the War on Terror, it is of course in the Russo-Ukrainian War that they have truly come into their own. Both the Russian tank column attack on Kyiv in the opening days or the conflict and the blunting of the Ukrainians’ counter-offensive in the south last Fall saw drones playing a central part. Russian drones hovering over the hundreds of yards of minefields, ready to strike the sappers attempting to defuse and disarm them, have been instrumental in stopping the breakthrough.

As the United States and its allies move away from having a limited number of highly expensive, vulnerable platforms, towards a stance in which they deploy very large numbers of much cheaper and less vulnerable ones, including swarms of suicide drones and fleets of underwater drones, so they will be in a better position to defend Western interests and deter aggression. They will be up against what Senator John McCain dubbed “the military-industrial-congressional complex,” however, where local political interests can hinder radical procurement changes.

With China ordering tens of thousands of “suicide” drones from Iran, Russia buying ordnance from North Korea and Iran, China building a major surface fleet and developing AI and robotics with stolen Western technology and sabre-rattling against Taiwan, with Iran shipping cruise missiles to the Houthis, and the Ukrainian counter-offensive stalled and a Russian counter-counter-offensive expected, there is no time for the West to waste in upgrading its systems.

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