Tech

Royal Navy will be getting autonomous machines – for donkey work humans can’t be bothered with

DSEI 2021 The British armed forces will be using robots as part of future warfare – but mostly for the “dull, dangerous and dirty” parts of military life, senior officers have said.

At London’s Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair, two senior officers in charge of digitisation and automation said the near future will be more Wall-E than Terminator – but fully automated war machines are no longer just the stuff of sci-fi.

Brigadier John Read, the Royal Navy’s deputy director of maritime capability, said in a speech the military “must automate” itself so it can “take advantage of advances in robotics, AI and machine learning.”

Rather than immediately deploying automated killing machines onto the battlefields of the 2020s, however, the Royal Marine officer said British naval use of robotics and autonomy would be for carrying out “specific tasks that may be dull, dangerous or dirty, and far better suited to machines than people.”

The brigadier’s boss, Rear Admiral James Parkin, also referred to “the accelerating technological proliferation” from Britain’s enemies (harking back to General Patrick Sanders’ speech identifying China and Russia) and cited an oft-heard trope from the world of cybersecurity as he said “we must have the ability to create an overwhelming burden of cost and complexity on our adversaries” in the expected Cold War-style future of armed standoffs with hostile countries.

Lest anyone get the idea that squishy humans will continue to do all the UK’s fighting in wars of the 2020s and ’30s, however, Brigadier Read said the MoD was looking to build fully remote controlled or autonomous military vehicles: “It doesn’t matter if it’s automated or autonomous, crewed or uncrewed, or somewhere in between. And at a point in the future, our platforms will be designed as uncrewed.”

Automation is not new, however. Admiral Parkin pointed out that radar and sonar sensors on current warships and submarines (and aircraft) have been “automated in many ways for decades,” highlighting that digital signal processing equipment has been used to process and refine raw input since the mid-20th Century.

“We’re always fairly confident [that] the weapon… will have a person in the loop. But I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, where we’re going to be comfortable with the decision function being automated,” continued the middle-aged admiral, referring to current MoD policy that humans always make the decision on whether to pull the trigger.

Britain’s ambitions for autonomous war machines stretch back years, with research into automation being highlighted by anti-robot-war-machine campaigners back in 2018. DSEI today continued that enthusiasm for R&D, with stands from all of the armed forces as well as the MoD boasting of advances in automated tech to support soldiers, sailors and airmen on the front lines.

The ministry is also funnelling ever more money towards R&D, explicitly aiming new batches of research funding outside its usual audience of MoD suppliers.

Fully automated war machines are “already a thing”, as the youth say: earlier this year the United Nations published a report claiming that Turkish-made quadcopters had been used to attack militants in Libya. The temptation by countries with few moral scruples to formally adopt this method of attack will be strong: the technology exists, is readily available and the average teenager understands how to fly (and if necessary program) a drone.

For now, at least, it seems the UK won’t be going down that path. ®


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