By Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has found significant use in military hardware, and AI-enabled weapons and sensors are being developed by the US, Russia and a number of European countries. Likewise, some Asian militaries such as China, Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore have announced plans to invest in AI-enabled military equipment. They are allocating substantial funds for in-house development as also for acquisitions through import substitution. These new technologies are poised to grow in popularity in the coming years, and many other Asian militaries can be expected to acquire these as advanced computing technologies become more readily available and affordable.
The Chinese political leadership has given primacy to disruptive technologies, and in 2018, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stressed innovation and investment in research and development of a new generation of AI capabilities. Military Balance, an IISS publication that provides annual assessments of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries worldwide, states in its 2018 report that Chinese commercial enterprises are helping the military “develop quantum technologies that will boost their ability to make use of artificial intelligence and big data, as well as to develop un-hackable communications networks.”
Although Japan has a pacifist constitution and Article 9 explicitly prohibits belligerence and forbids war, the country has maintained a technologically superior military force due to threats from China and North Korea. It has successfully achieved technological proficiency in dual-use technologies such as robotics, unmanned systems and AI that can support military applications. In 2014, Japan decided to invest US$ 372 million in its military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme, and the US government approved sales of three Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. In 2017, Japan announced its highest even defence budget of US$ 51 billion and the country’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) unveiled plans for military drones that can attack targets autonomously. The JASDF is also exploring the possibility of acquiring ballistic-missile defense (BMD) drones that use sensors to track incoming missiles over the next 15 to 20 years.
South Korea has also decided to closely follow AI-related developments in China and Japan. In 2016, it announced an investment of US$ 863 million for AI-related R&D, and in early 2018, plans to invest Won 2.2 trillion in AI-related R&D including setting up of six new AI-research institutes by 2022. The plan is to train 1370 AI specialists by 2022 including 350 key researchers and award 4,500 domestic AI scholarships. South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT (MSICT) which is responsible for AI coordination and development at the national level plans to introduce short-term project to address the AI talent shortage with six-month intensive training courses that will incubate 600 young specialists by 2021. Meanwhile, universities are being encouraged to set up AI courses.
India has set up a 17-member multi-stakeholder taskforce to formulate a strategy and framework for future employment of AI for national security and defence. The roadmap for producing transformative weaponry would include AI, intelligent and autonomous robotic systems, and cyber defence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also stressed the need to develop such technologies, and stated that “New and emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Robotics are perhaps the most important determinant of defensive and offensive capabilities for any defence force in the future. India, with its leadership in Information Technology domain, would strive to use this technology tilt to its advantage.” These initiatives will potentially boost the operational preparedness of the Indian military for next generation warfare.
Among the smaller militaries, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is perhaps the most modern in Asia and has chosen to harness the potential of AI. It is currently using AI-enabled tools in a number of security and defence sectors such as homeland and maritime security, vessel traffic monitoring, and domain awareness through unmanned surface, aerial and ground vehicles. In 2017, Singapore announced an annual seed grant of SGD 45 million to foster experimentation and innovation in its two new laboratories in the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) and DSO National Laboratories organisations. The former will focus on analytics and artificial intelligence, and the latter will develop a robotics laboratory.
It is evident that Asian countries have chosen to build AI-enabled forces that can defend very large areas by setting up sensor grids on land and deploying sea-based unmanned surface and underwater combat vehicles. Besides, some of these countries, particularly China, are developing a varied arsenal of missiles that are intelligent and equipped with high level AI and in-flight automation.
These are indeed transformative changes and may substitute earlier warfare concepts that were focused on seeking dominance over land, sea and air, and upset the delicate balance of military power in Asia. This will add to the increasing dangers already posed by the potential of space and cyber warfare.