How the Military Is Increasingly Investing in AI-Powered and Autonomous Technology

March 21, 2020 by Luke James

As artificial intelligence seemingly worms its way into applications across all industries, from consumer electronics to healthcare, governments around the world are starting to invest more in an area where AI could be a gamechanger: military hardware and technology.

In fact, many governments are already developing the next generation of programs and technologies for their hardware, technology, and weapons systems in the hope that it will give them an advantage over their adversaries. Naturally, this creates mounting pressure for other countries to follow in their footsteps. 


Who’s Developing What?

One of the latest investments in AI-backed military technology comes from the United Kingdom, where the Royal Navy has recently been awarded £1 million to build an autonomous test sub which could see extra-large autonomous submarines joining the Navy’s fleet. This money will be spent on refitting an existing submersible with autonomous control systems. 

According to the Royal Navy, the Manta XLUUV (Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle)—which is being built in collaboration with Plymouth-based MSubs Ltd—will be able to descend up to 30 meters and will have a range of up to 3,000 nautical miles. In use, Manta will participate in surveillance, reconnaissance, and anti-submarine warfare. 


The XLUUV Manta S201 submarine from MSubs.

A graphic displaying the interior of the XLUUV Manta S201 Submersible. Image used courtesy of MSubs


United States

The UK’s closest ally, the United States, maintains no official position and has enacted no official policy on the use of AI in military hardware at this time. However, in September 2018 the Pentagon pledged $2 billion over the next five years to “develop [the] next wave of AI technologies,” via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). 

DARPA’s OFFSET program, which seeks to use “swarms comprising upwards of 250 unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) and/or unmanned ground systems (UGSs) to accomplish diverse missions in complex urban environments,” is currently in development with a number of private sector companies and research institutions.

Another DARPA program, the Squad X Experimentation Program, aims to help soldiers develop a greater sense of confidence in their autonomous partners, as well as a better understanding of how the autonomous systems would likely act on the battlefield.



Potential adversaries are at it, too. China, while maintaining an official UN position of wanting to see the use of autonomous weapon systems banned, supports the development of them, something which has raised many eyebrows. At the moment, China’s government continues to pursue the use of AI for military purposes with a national strategy that integrates military innovation into the country’s national innovation system. It is thought that the country is currently developing next-gen stealth drones.


XLUUV Manta S201 submarine.

The new unmanned XLUUV submarine will likely be based on the S201 Manta submersible. Image used courtesy of MSubs



And Russia? The Russian government appears to support lethal autonomous weapons and the use of AI in military hardware, saying to the UN that the rhetoric surrounding them should not ignore their potential benefits and that many concerns can be addressed through “faithful implementation of the existing international legal norms.” As for the country’s developments in this area, a new city named Era is currently under construction and will be devoted wholly to building military artificial intelligence systems as a research and development hub. 


An AI Arms Race?

Much like the nuclear arms race of the last century, government investments in AI-powered military technology mark the beginning of a potential, so-called “AI arms race” which in theory poses an all-new threat. Just like its nuclear counterpart, this modern arms race incentivizes nations to develop military technologies quickly, faster than other countries, with safety, ethics, and other concerns as an afterthought—or not a thought at all. 

Ultimately, there is no sustainable advantage; there will be no winners. Despite this, developments in military AI are coming thick and fast, and this has prompted peace organization PAX to weigh in with its latest report, State of AI

Daan Kayser, the PAX report’s lead author, said, “PAX calls on states to develop a legally binding instrument that ensures meaningful human control over weapons systems, as soon as possible.”