And while the use of drones as killing platforms predates the Ukraine war, uses and tactics involving the use of the devices have dramatically advanced over the past roughly 11 months.
The Associated Press reported this week that the longer the fighting lasts, the faster "a long-anticipated technology trend" will move, bringing about "the world's first fully autonomous fighting robots to the battlefield, inaugurating a new age of warfare."
"The longer the war lasts, the more likely it becomes that drones will be used to identify, select and attack targets without help from humans, according to military analysts, combatants and artificial intelligence researchers," the AP added.
If -- or rather, when -- this happens, experts say it will usher in a revolution in military technology that was as monumental to warfare as was the machine gun, which actually began with the hand-cranked Gatlin guns at the end of the American Civil War (which also ushered in other advances, such as the rifled bullet, improving accuracy, and the cartridge, which signaled the end of the musket).
Already, Ukraine is employing semi-autonomous attack drones on the battlefield as well as counter-drone weapons that utilize artificial intelligence, the report added. And while Russia is also claiming to be employing AI weaponry, so far, those have yet to be confirmed. Still, there are no confirmed cases where any country has deployed a fully robotic combatant on a battlefield that has killed humans entirely on their own. But experts warn those days are coming sooner rather than later, and it could be either country that deploys them.
“Many states are developing this technology,” Zachary Kallenborn, a George Mason University weapons innovation analyst, told The Associated Press. ”Clearly, it’s not all that difficult.”
The AP notes that liberal activists aren't going to be happy:
The sense of inevitability extends to activists, who have tried for years to ban killer drones but now believe they must settle for trying to restrict the weapons’ offensive use.
Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, agrees that fully autonomous killer drones are “a logical and inevitable next step” in weapons development. He said Ukraine has been doing “a lot of R&D in this direction.”
“I think that the potential for this is great in the next six months,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Unfortunately, the development of autonomous systems will also come as a result of manpower shortages. Ukraine is much smaller, population-wise, than Russia, and President Vladimir Putin's army is getting beaten up badly, with more than 100,000 lost thus far, according to reports, which is making the war very unpopular in his country and will complicate efforts for him to recruit enough men to refill depleted ranks.
Lt. Col. Yaroslav Honchar, a Ukrainian military officer, is a co-founder of the combat drone innovation nonprofit Aerorozvidka. In a recent interview near the front lines in the country's east, he said human soldiers cannot make decisions and process information nearly as fast as a machine. He added that while Ukrainian military leaders and the country's civilian leadership currently do not permit the use of fully autonomous lethal weapons, that may change in the future, especially if Russia continues targeting the country's infrastructure and neighboring Belarus joins forces and sends troops into Ukraine as expected.
“We have not crossed this line yet – and I say ‘yet’ because I don’t know what will happen in the future.” said Honchar, whose group has led drone innovation in Ukraine, converting cheap commercial drones into highly lethal weapons.
These systems will make their debut on some Ukrainian battlefield in the not-too-distant future. Count on it.