It is becoming obvious that the arms race in the 21st century will not only be a race of nuclear missiles, but also a race of combat drones. The outcome of which may well lead to a change in the balance of power in the tactical military level, and after it in grand geopolitics, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The use of attack UAVs is becoming one of the most important elements of modern armed conflict. This changes the tactics of warfare, entails serious political and ethical issues, and to a certain extent affects the dynamics of the balance of power in world geopolitics. Therefore, the problems and prospects for the use of attack drones are rightfully becoming the object of increasingly detailed expert analysis. In this regard, the Valdai Club recently held a special expert discussion dedicated to this problem.
The Karabakh conflict in the autumn of 2020 became especially indicative of the use of attack drones in real hostilities. It cannot be denied that the presence of such drones on the Azerbaijani side became a significant factor in ensuring final success and the return of previously-lost territories. Although experts are still arguing about certain purely combat-related results of using UAVs and the opposite sides, for obvious reasons, give diametrically opposite assessments of their efficiency, the psychological, emotional and media aspects of their use are obvious. The PR effect of these combat drones has turned out to be really powerful. Impressive videos showing live strikes and destruction of enemy targets and personnel, as well as the rapid dissemination of such clips in the media and on social networks had an effective informational impact. In addition, there has been a shift in the aesthetics of war; a new factor that, despite all its provocative political incorrectness, should not be discounted. At least on a subconscious level, it has an attractive power.
As a result, the sense of conflict asymmetry between states which use drones and those which don’t has becomes strikingly clear. In terms of media coverage, a very clear picture was emerging that, on the one hand, everyone saw efficient soldiers of the future, technically equipped with weapons of the 21st century and playing an important role in non-contact combat. Moreover, this was not done by the super-powerful United States, to whose military equipment and similar video broadcasts everyone is already accustomed, but by a completely ordinary country. And this, by the way, may tempt many states at similar levels of development, leading them to ask: “if Azerbaijan can do this, then why can’t we”. At the same time, on the other side of the conflict, the media showed us an outdated army of the 20th century, equipped with Soviet weapons together with inefficient and confused leaders. The same 2020 Karabakh conflict, by the way, also raised difficult questions about the real efficiency of Armenian (i.e. Russian-made) air defence and electronic warfare systems in protecting against the mass use of attack UAVs.
This asymmetry of conflict also has its clearest dimension, expressed in human lives. If the drone attack is unsuccessful, and drones are shot down, then only metal, albeit not cheap, will be broken and lost. If desired, there can be more, as needed. However, if ordinary planes are shot down in battle, the pilots die. A lost human life, unlike metal, cannot be returned. The drone itself, however, also kills people, let’s not forget about this.
All this raises the question of the changed ethics of war in connection with the proliferation of attack drones. It is becoming quite common for a drone operator to be far from the battlefield, working in silence and safety, with a mug of coffee and a joystick in his hands; at the same time he takes the lives of real people. As a result, modern warfare, on a tactical level, is becoming less distinguishable from a computer game. These very aesthetics of war and death, to be honest, attracts many to such computer shooting games, where there is no question about the ethical aspect of your actions at all, when it comes to real life. And computer simulacra, with their utter irresponsibility, can become a model of behaviour in a real war. There is a very strong temptation to expand hostilities and deliver additional casualties to the enemy. After all, this feeling of having power over life and death, the right to execute and pardon, which, we repeat, is the most important aspect of that seductive aesthetics of war in computer games, has now been transferred into reality. As a result, aesthetics triumph over ethics in the most important issue — human life.
A separate issue is the prospect for the use of artificial intelligence in the development of strike drones. One of the areas in which work is underway is increasing the autonomy of the drone during a sortie. The task is set so that the UAV itself, without the participation of the operator, can make the decision to strike, reacting to the constantly changing combat situation. If this can be achieved in an efficient way, then the artificial intelligence of the drone will almost completely replace the pilot of a fighter or bomber, not only in controlling the aircraft, but also in real combat. On the one hand, this is a step forward, since even more pilots’ lives will be saved (although the demand for their profession will decrease). On the other hand, it is still an open question whether a drone’s artificial intelligence is able to simulate those emotional factors that largely determine the behaviour of a real pilot in combat, especially in the often very superstitious world of military aviation. Will such factors as the pilot’s intuition, luck, combat courage or combat rage, or hatred of the enemy be available for the drone, if in battle it will be controlled not by a live operator (with all these qualities), but by cold artificial intelligence? Whether or not these emotions help in the conduct of the battle or only interfere, in fact, remains an open question. It seems that in almost all military memoirs it is clear that the emotional charge for the battle is of key importance for its successful conduct. But there is still too little evidence that the cold intelligence of a machine behaves better or worse in battle than a living person. This problem of modelling feelings and emotions when creating artificial intelligence, which is extremely important for this area in general, takes on an additional dimension in the context of the future war.
In any event, science and technology do not stand still, and the spread of such autonomous drones with artificial intelligence is just around the corner, prompting even greater ethical fears. On the one hand, they are reminiscent of the fears of unmanned vehicles that are quite common in society. Is it possible to trust them with your life, and not to knock down pedestrians? Will their artificial intelligence be enough at a dangerous moment? Now a similar attitude has to be developed towards combat drones, which are real weapons of war, even if the developers of artificial intelligence declare that it will include all the necessary fuses. When you see a red cross on the roof of the hospital, you don’t shoot. When a group of people are identified as civilians and non-combatants, you do not fire a rocket into them. And since the artificial intelligence of drones, at least for the time being, will lack that very “combat rage”, their use in war will be less dangerous for civilians than the behaviour of real live soldiers. But fears, of course, still remain.The problem of attack drones is also important for Russia. It is clear that one wouldn’t shoot them down with nuclear missiles, and therefore the asymmetry of the conflict at the tactical level can also affect Russia. This is especially significant in the context of various emerging scenarios for the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. According to some expert estimates, including the aforementioned seminar of the Valdai Club, in Russia there may be a lag behind other countries in this type of weapons. And not only with regards to the United States, but also the middle powers, which are incomparable in terms of overall military potential with Russia. Problems in the development and production of electronics are cited as one of the reasons for this possible backlog. In any case, it is becoming obvious that the arms race in the 21st century will not only be a race of nuclear missiles, but also a race of combat drones. The outcome of which may well lead to a change in the balance of power in the tactical military level, and after it in grand geopolitics.