The Pentagon is already testing tomorrow’s AI-powered swarm drones, ships – DNyuz

The Pentagon is already testing tomorrow’s AI-powered swarm drones, ships

Autonomous weapons are coming. Pentagon’s recent breakthroughs with experimental naval and aerial craft pave the way for AI-powered low-cost drones, and new tactics. Navy and Air Force tests also showed how U.S. forces might use autonomous weapons in a different way than China or Russia.

The Navy, for example, brought swarms of air and sea drones to the annual Unitas exercise, where they collected and shared reconnaissance data that helped the multinational fleet detect, identify, and take out enemy craft more quickly.

“We were able to fire six patrol boats at high speeds coming our way with the help of an international partner’s missiles. And we were six for six,” said Rear Adm. James Aiken, 4th Fleet commander, sharing new details about the July exercise at the Navy Surface Warfare symposium in Virginia last week.


The 4th Fleet, along with the 5th Fleet halfway around the world, are the Navy’s leaders in emerging AI concepts. Then-CNO Adm. Michael Gilday pushed for experiments in operational waters, which he said might become critical for dealing with grey-zone operations, smuggling, and other threats.

Aiken said unmanned and AI systems could help detect and thwart hostile attempts to interfere with international shipping, in part by scouring video footage and other sensor data. Such systems could also help to make information sharing and working with partners easier, including shipping companies or other governments.

“We actually use a human-machine interface to make better watchstanders, to better inform the fleet and to move forward,” he said. How can we…use these in different ways for distributed maritime [operations]?? To get us a better sight picture of what’s going on? And then share that with with some of our key stakeholders around the globe?”

The United States isn’t the only country making new uses of autonomy. While the one-way attack drones that Houthi forces are firing at ships in the Red Sea are crude, earlier this month they launched what U.S. officials called a “complex” attack of more than 20 drones at once. Iran reportedly has plans to build jet versions of its one-way attack drones, weapons that could show up anywhere from Ukraine to the Red Sea.

That highlights the urgent need for cheaper interception technologies but it also validates the Pentagon’s five-month-old Replicator plan to increase production of cheap drones for attack, much as both sides have done in the Ukraine war and Iran has done to arm the Houthis.

U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro stated that the Navy was contributing.

“These concepts have been brought to fruition in terms of all the advances that we’ve made in unmanned, whether it be on the surface, whether it be in the air, whether it be underneath the surface,” Del Toro said. “The concepts that we’ve put forward to Replicator have been very well embraced.”

Air Force

The Air Force last year also demonstrated new capabilities in autonomy and AI, Col. Tucker Hamilton, Operations Commander of the Air Force’s 96th Test Wing, said this week.

“We are testing things like the XQ-58 high-performance drone that is uncrewed and has AI-enabled functionality which is really cool. We actually, for the first time in the history of aviation, had an AI agent and AI algorithm fly a high-performance drone” last July at Eglin Air Base, Florida,” he said during a Defense News broadcast. I had the good fortune to fly on its wings. When the AI agent turned on for the first time, I was in an F-15 and it was awesome.”

Hamilton said previous “autonomous” drones have generally followed simple instructions, say, for returning to a predetermined location after losing contact with its operator. There’s little room for actual elaboration. He said the directions were simple: “will fly with this throttle setting and this airspeed.” You will turn it 30 degrees… and it’s all like very deterministic software.”

But new experiments, such as with XQ-58, have allowed a more sophisticated form of autonomy.

“This allows us to give the aircraft an objective. It then decides which throttle settings, bank angles, altitudes, and dive angles it will use to achieve that goal. This is the AI-enabled autonomous driving we are talking about. Hamilton stated that it was a great sight to behold when the AI-enabled autonomy turned on.

The outcomes are often surprising. The XQ-58, for instance, makes extremely rapid or “crisp” rolls compared to an aircraft with a human pilot.

“A computer-controlled aircraft…may do things differently than a human. “We need to acknowledge that there is a great benefit here,” said he.

To realize that benefit, he said, AI systems need a learning space where they can make decisions in a safe way.

“We allowed the AI agent to tweak its code in order to achieve this goal. And then we surround that AI algorithm with autonomy code so if, at any point, that AI agent that is flying the XQ-58 asks for–I’m just making up numbers–but say it asks for like a universal bank, but we didn’t want it to be able to ask for 80 degrees of bank; we only wanted the maximum to be 70 degrees of bank, it would automatically turn off if it asked for more.”

That human-and-computer collaboration sets U.S. military autonomy research apart from similar research elsewhere.

The Ukraine conflict marks the long-feared arrival of autonomous weapons in combat. Michael Horowitz said last week, as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Force Development and Emerging Capabilities that jammers could disrupt communications between drones and operators, that militaries were building AI-powered drones that didn’t require communication to perform their mission.

“If we look at Ukraine, and the articles that are published about the various cat-and mouse games between Ukraine and Russia, it is clear that autonomy could be one way that the military would like to tackle some of these challenges.

A year ago, the Defense Department revised its policy on autonomous weapons to clarify when they would be allowed to shoot.

“We had ended up in a situation where outside the department, the community veterans, thought that DOD was maybe building killer robots in the basement. And inside the department, there was a lot of confusion over what the directive actually said, with some actually thinking the directive prohibited the development of autonomous weapon systems, with maybe particular characteristics or even in general. We wanted to clarify what was and wasn’t permissible in terms of DOD policies surrounding weapon systems and autonomy, so we revised the directive.

“This directive doesn’t prohibit any system development. All it requires is that for autonomous weapons systems, unless they fit a specific exempted category, like, say, protecting a U.S. base from lots of simultaneous missile strikes, that it has to go through a senior review process, where senior leaders in the department take an extra look. In addition to all of the other testing and evaluation…and other requirements that we have.”

That may sound like the Defense Department giving itself permission to build whatever killer robot it wants, so long as that permission comes via a “senior review process”–the sort of self-review that Russia or China might undertake to justify building Terminator knock-offs.

Horowitz said the policy actually shows how the Pentagon’s development of autonomous weapons (should they undertake it) fundamentally differs from those of Russia and China.

The U.S. is also looking to set international norms for the responsible military development of AI and bringing in European partner nations, many of whose citizens are highly cautious about AI in military settings. Last November, the United States launched a Political Declaration on Responsible Military Use of AI that already has 51 signatories, Horowitz said.

“We’re proud of the fact it’s not just the usual suspects…if you look at the pattern of countries that have endorsed the political declaration,” he said.

U.S. Officials hope that a huge international consensus on AI will force Russia and China into adhering to certain norms.

“Because, again, we think of this as good governance so countries can develop and deploy AI enabled military systems safely, which is in everybody’s interest. He said that nobody wants systems which increase the chance of miscalculations or behave in ways you cannot predict. “I think trends are heading in the right direction.”

That highlights the importance of strong multi-national alliances and institutions in keeping the world safe from new weapons. But that also suggests that we are only as safe as those alliances and institutions themselves.

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