AI in unmanned military systems: Finding opportunities amidst the challenges

At the annual European Defence Agency conference, EU policy makers highlighted both the opportunities and challenges that AI in unmanned military systems present.
Euro Drone | Photo credit: European Defence Agency

The last ten years has seen an increasing use of unmanned military systems in armed conflict, particularly drones.

With the ever-growing advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI), future unmanned systems will have yet higher levels of autonomy, not only enhancing military capabilities but also raising new challenges for Europe’s military planners.

Recognising the implications of more ‘intelligent’ unmanned systems, in November 2018 the European Defence Agency (EDA) brought together military, technical and policy experts to discuss key challenges and opportunities, as part of its annual conference.


For some, the use of AI-enhanced weapons is a controversial issue. This became apparent before the conference got underway, as a small demonstration against the use of self-automated weapons took place outside the venue in Brussels.

Recognising concerns and opposition to such weapons, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, “I understand there have been some problems relating to security outside. I hope things go well, because our aim is to have a dialogue and to cooperate with everybody, including those that might have different views from ours.”

Addressing delegates at the conference, Mogherini said she wanted to ensure that AI “continues to change our lives, for the better, and not turn into a security risk.”

She said the debates at the conference were not about a distant future or ‘science fiction’, but rather an acknowledgement that AI is already part of our lives.

“We are entering a world where drones could independently search for a target and kill without human intervention. AI could take decisions on life and death, with no direct control from a human being” Federica Mogherini

“It is in the smartphones we all carry with us, and its applications are expanding at an incredible speed. It is contributing to our security today, for instance, in building stronger defence systems against cyber-attacks.”

Yet she admitted that the technology also poses new security challenges, as it is now starting to be weaponised.

“We are entering a world where drones could independently search for a target and kill without human intervention. AI could take decisions on life and death, with no direct control from a human being.”

However, she stressed that the EU’s position was very clear; all weapon systems should comply with international law, and that humans must always remain in control of the use of lethal force.

European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, said she believed that European defence planning was now facing two major ‘tectonic shifts’: the first being the end of the ‘Pax Americana’ and the rise of China as an economic, military and technological power.

Together with the resurgence of Russia and the weakening of multilateral institutions, this is creating a more unpredictable and confrontational international environment.

Gabriel said the second tectonic shift was the digital revolution “driven by robotics and artificial intelligence, combined with the increase in computer processing power and access to data.”

“These systems would expand the battlefield, allowing combat operations to reach into areas that were previously inaccessible” General Claudio Graziano

Despite the huge economic potential AI offers, Gabriel also highlighted the possible security threats from external actors, both private and public “to control or destabilise our society, sometimes with impunity.”

She said she was fully aware of the need to enhance cybersecurity for European infrastructures and warned delegates about dependence on strategic foreign technologies or exposure to potentially harmful foreign technologies such as data analysis tools, placed in strategic infrastructures like cloud servers.

She added that the rise of foreign direct investments that can be used to take control of European strategic assets was also of growing concern.

Providing a military perspective to the debate, head of the EU Military Committee (EUMC) General Claudio Graziano said he believed that, as with any new technological innovations, the EUMC had “a responsibility to promptly analyse opportunities and challenges, and to learn how to exploit and adapt them to military capabilities.”

Admitting it was a challenge to anticipate the future implications of unmanned and autonomous systems, Graziano said he also wanted to highlight the opportunities this new technology brought.

“First and foremost, the availability of unmanned and autonomous systems is a force multiplier, where a single system can replace one or more fighters on the ground. Consequently, these systems would expand the battlefield, allowing combat operations to reach into areas that were previously inaccessible.”

Other areas where autonomous systems could have a positive effect, he said, is in the reduction of casualties, where human fighters can be replaced in missions of high risk for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.

He pointed out that autonomous weapons are not influenced by negative emotions such as fear, hysteria or bias, but added that there were ethical issues that needed to be addressed, including delegating life-or-death decisions to non-humans.

He said the legal issue of how to define a clear chain of accountability should also be taken into account and raised the important issue of ensuring that autonomous systems do not turn against us.

Ultimately for Graziano, the challenge of using AI-enhanced unmanned weapons systems is how to exploit these high performing systems, “but keeping, at the same time, the possibility for humans to take full control of the mission in case of specific, unpredictable events.”

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