War is a fact of life for humankind. We have been constantly killing each other in increasingly deadly and larger scale ways for most of our history, with the last 60 years of relative peace being an aberration by historical norms.
However, as humans we forget and assume the future won’t repeat the long-term cycle of human nature. On Anzac Day, Australia’s Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo spoke of the ‘beating drums of war’, and for the first time in recent history, Australian military planners are preparing for a potential war with China in this decade.
Just as we forget, we also make the common misjudgement of assuming the next war will be much like the last. We need to consider the new technologies that would drive this new war.
Australian defence believes these will include hypersonic weapons, war in space, and artificial intelligence (AI) applied to various war domains. The US Department of Defence concurs, with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre (JAIC) reportedly working on bringing AI to warfare.
AI in warfare
While not necessarily a Skynet from The Terminator movies, though it could be, AI might be aiding a human operator, or be an autonomous execution of the mission.
Already, the brand-new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 plane, the best military flying machine of its kind ever built, is rumoured to be the last manned platform – the main restriction on the machine – how fast it can fly, duck and dive, and shoot, is driven by the squishy human tissue inside the cockpit with its many limitations.
Much debate has taken place on whether AI should be allowed to make its own mind up on killing people, with Elon Musk and Google arguing against it.
The ‘pro’ argument is generally that in a battle where one side has machines that are authorised to kill, and the other does not, the side without a human in the loop will inevitably win in this new era of warfare.
In another defence application, AI is able to ingest a large amount of information from many sensors, processing it in real time for morsels of interest, and then reporting signals of interest to the human operator.
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Australian military has been making significant investment in growing this capacity, including setting up a Defence AI Centre in collaboration with the defence industry late last year.
Interestingly, much of the war on the AI front has arguably already started. AI needs fast – super-fast – microprocessors.
Most of these are manufactured in Taiwan today, and a shortage of supply has been an issue.
China is now the US’ peer competitor in many of the same areas – except in one critical field: designing and manufacturing the most advanced microprocessors and logic and memory chips, which are the base layer for AI.
Conquering Taiwan would fit China’s historical narrative, but it also happens to be convenient from a technology supply chain perspective, both in acquiring its own, and denying the West theirs (or adding ‘kill switch’ features in any exports).
Australia needs to start preparing for this development.
On the software front, further investment in defence AI, across multiple applications by Defence, is critical.
On the hardware front, Australia is utterly reliant on the import of defence-grade printed circuit boards (PCBs), with only a few defence-grade PCB small manufacturers left standing in Australia.
Much like with oil refining, ammunition manufacturing or other similar activities, it’s not all about making optimal economic sense, but about providing sovereign security of strategic supplies at a time when war is beckoning.
Oleg Vornik is CEO of Australian listed company DroneShield, which specialises in RF sensing, AI and machine learning, sensor fusion, electronic warfare, rapid prototyping and MIL-SPEC manufacturing