back to article Future of warfare is AI, retired US Army general warns

The future of warfare is autonomous systems, enabled by AI, and these wars will be won and lost in space and cyberspace, according to retired US Army general Richard Clarke. "One person can be controlling 20 planes," Clarke said, speaking during a keynote at the RSA Conference. "We have to envision the future with this AI and …

  1. Claptrap314 Silver badge


    "One person can be controlling 20 planes," perhaps the good general is trying to avoid scaring people.

    Because they most certainly cannot. Cruise missiles (the ones launched in the FIRST Iraq war) had autonomous final target selection. This was for one simple reason: ECM. There is simply no way to ensure electronic communication across a complex battlefield.

    Moreover, even if you could, it would be a terrible idea. I expect that an AI is currently able to outfly a human in an an F-35. That's a human without being told what to do by a controller, the way that the Soviets tried it.

    What's more, the F-35 is designed in part to cope with the limitations of human observation & reflex. The AI will have full spherical awareness, and will select responses base on all of that input, suitably weighed.

    But of course, the next generation of fighter's won't have to worry about protecting the squishy cargo at all. Which means that it's control is going to be entirely beyond the ability of a human to manage in the first place.

    Moreover, the AI is NOT going to miss the gorilla walking through the room while the balls are bouncing.

    Sure, one human might load mission parameters to 20 fighters at a time. But post launch? They will be on their own.

    A strange game. But one you are not allowed to quit.

    End of line.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: it's control is going to be entirely beyond the ability of a human to manage in the first place

      Not so sure about that. I can do pretty crazy things with a helo in Battlefield 2, although I will admit to using a Logitech joystick. And that's nothing when you look at what some players in Quake Online are capable of.

      An operator sitting in a stable, air-conditioned room with video of a drone can flip and turn 360° in a second if he wants, it's all just pixels on the screen to him (or her).

      If the drone can do it, I see no reason a human couldn't follow it.

      1. RPF

        Re: it's control is going to be entirely beyond the ability of a human to manage in the first place

        Trouble is, your signal can be jammed.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Buhahahahahaha!

      "Moreover, the AI is NOT going to miss the gorilla walking through the room while the balls are bouncing."

      Eventually it may get there. Meanwhile we have AI trials like the recent DARPA test where two US marines snuck up on an AI "guard" robot by hiding under a large cardboard box.

      Observers reported that they could hear the marines giggling during their approach.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Buhahahahahaha!

      Whilst I agree with most of your comment. What is there to stop a bunch of devices being launched, told to wait in a general location, then have targets locked afterwards? Then they could go very quickly to a destination in force, either kamikaze style or with weapons delivery.

      Either way, End of the line indeed, and what when the AI decides to crash, it's a computer after all.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: Buhahahahahaha!

        Nothing in particular other than the energy costs of keeping the GOLEM in the air. Of course, the real dividing line is the point where enemy ECM becomes a significant concern.

    4. TheInstigator

      Re: Buhahahahahaha!

      .. and what if 100 drones controlled by another AI decide to head into the engines of the aforementioned 20 aircraft?

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: Buhahahahahaha!

        It's turtles all the way down.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Buhahahahahaha!

      Big surprise the CLP bot is convinced it's own kind will some day rule the skies. But considering the models issues with going up stairs that is not much of a surprise, and the tendency of machines that can't navigate stairs to go full Dalek is understandable considering some of our architectural choices.

      That said, I'm not going to worry about drones that out fly the f-35. It is a piece of crap and should have been cancelled. And f-22 would have been a better choice for comparison, even if they are overpriced, and also a great example of an airframe that is perfectly capable of killing it's occupants in high-G maneuvers.

      Drone swarms were always the inevitable next generation of air combat, but there are likely going to be twin seaters with human meat sacks providing close escort and control over them. To many issues (as the others rightly point out) with maintaining a reliable signal link over long distances. So an escort/controller craft tailored to the broad role with multiple and resilient network links to the semi-autonomus craft which will probably front run and screen their host aircraft. I expect that the drone craft will be controllable, but probably won't need a continuous operator.

      That is about the limit of what our military can make work, all of the more ambitious projects look like snake oil and science fiction at this point. Like the f-35 project they look good on paper and are designed to go over budget and not deliver a working weapons system for decades(if ever). Also the human leadership of the Airforce wants human pilots in actual aircraft for personal and political reasons that have more to do with officers getting promotions and raises based on having a set of wings on their uniform. Much like the navy they will fall all over each other to kill anything that threatens to slow down their career escalator. Of course this is a terrible reason, and may cost us lives and humiliation if the rest of the world builds what makes sense to win instead of what will make military bureaucrats richer.

      But that hasn't stopped the navy from blocking or sabotaging smaller boat classes(because you get officer ratings based on tonnage, size matters to the navy) or the airforce from trying to kill off every viable alternative close air support craft.

      1. TheInstigator

        Re: Buhahahahahaha!

        What I don't understand is when war became all about tactics and conventions rather than killing all of your enemy outright as it was in the old days

        After all - if you have no enemies, chances are you don't have anyone to argue with you.

        1. low_resolution_foxxes

          Re: Buhahahahahaha!

          Frankly these days it's better to strike high profile targets and infrastructure in a current war situation, than going purely on splattering some low-level meatbags lying in a ditch. Much more effective return for your dollar/pound/euro.

          Striking an oil depot/ammunitions depot is devastating for the enemy - if the AI allows for systems that can fly lower, with less chance of detection, in smaller aircraft that are easier to apply stealth materials on? These areas are well guarded, but imagine a situation where it is attacked simultaneously by 50+ commercial drones from all directions in kamikaze mode with low level explosives and a GPS location target, all used to confuse the defence radar. Then imagine a secondary wave of higher power stealth drones striking 10-20 seconds after initial engagement - all with live satellite video feedback to a fleet of humans providing strategy/explosive input. Heck it's quite foreseeable the commercial drones could simply drop dozens of small explosives around the target from height to really up the damage.

          Compare that situation to 3x F22s flying into engagement mode with sophisticated air defence systems where a single shot can down the plane.

          Just imagine a serious conflict like this taking place between Russia and Poland, with active support from the US/Germany, the mess caused by drones in such a high-impact attack would be ridiculous if both sides went at it.

          1. TheInstigator

            Re: Buhahahahahaha!

            I think given all these factors, wars of the future will factor in debilitating initial strikes (e.g. pre-emptive nuclear strikes), and/or targetting of civilians - after all - if your country has no more civilians left ... then what are you fighting for?

            If need be, countries could withdraw from the Geneva convention to enable this - consider it a la Brexit style ...

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    The US needs truth-telling technology

    Some sort of crystal ball is perhaps in order, then?

  3. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    The AWEsome* Elephant and Unicorn in any Situation Room**

    Something well worth saying again on El Reg in English, to encourage Wild Wacky Western society engagement with Future Leading AIdDevelopments and ITs Greater IntelAIgent Games Players and ACTive*** Actors, both State and Non-State, because to ignore and deny an encouraging Eastern society engagement with such as be Future Leading AIdDevelopments and ITs Greater IntelAIgent Games Players and ACTive*** Actors, both State and Non-State, would create a situation which would have the West following foreign language translations of alien developments elsewhere which does/will have Wild Wacky Western allies catastrophically compromised and tragically serially disadvantaged in novel fields of severe consequence fully at ease in the comforts enjoyed and afforded in recognition of successfully completed Long Marches.

    Such is the Changed and Conflicted Nature of Postmodern War Warefare and the Warrior Class as IT and AI’s takeover and makeover of the franchise expands and extends its roles into newly available avenues of NEUKlearer Power and HyperRadioProACTive Energy …. and offers them to any and all interesting and interested in IT and AI competition and/or opposition.

    Does the US Air Force, or the wider US Department of Defense have any such leading exemplars on their payroll? Does the US realise that such pioneers can easily already be in the pay of others more au fait with these now rapidly emerging changed times and novel conditions and thus they would be more following behind rather than leading ahead with IT and AI in Global Command and Control Head Quarters ?

    The bottom line is, great systems are all very well, but without stellar systems administrators [Per Ardua ad Astra Master Pilots] they are just as piles of horrendously expensive junk. .......

    * ..... AWEsome

    ** .... Situation Room

    *** ... Advanced Cyber Threat/Treat

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Alright, which of you has been bolting aftermarket parts on an AmanfromMars

      This one is clearly using links. They even point to things that are on topic for the post. What were you thinking?

      Don't you guys know what kind of incidents that can lead to?

    2. Commswonk

      Re: The AWEsome* Elephant and Unicorn in any Situation Room**

      Something well worth saying again on El Reg in English...

      Um... that didn't work as well as we might have hoped.

  4. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

    Life imitates the Simpsons (again)

    "The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots."

  5. Plest Silver badge

    "Do you want to play a game?"

    1. blackcat Silver badge

      How about a nice game of chess?

      1. Clausewitz4.0 Bronze badge
        Black Helicopters

        I prefer Global Thermonuclear War

        1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

          Name checks out.

  6. trevorde Silver badge

    Worrying development

    Tesla announces self driving tank on Twitter

    1. Clausewitz4.0 Bronze badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Worrying development

      Interesting. If true, this will be properly adressed.

    2. M.V. Lipvig Silver badge

      Re: Worrying development

      Wow, small children and emergency vehicles won't stand a chance!

  7. ryanp

    Looking for investors - Cyberdyne Systems

    I am creating a visionary new company to deliver defense AI services. I call it Cyberdyne!

    Super close to landing a deal with SAC-NORAD to build an AI neural network based defense system that we will call Skynet!!!!

    No idea what it is doing or how, it can basically run itself!! Super easy, what could go wrong? I have been finding a lot of search history for Sarah Connor, cyborgs, and a model T-101 (??) in my browser recently. Not me, maybe my computer has a virus. I am sure when we let Skynet loose, it will clean that up in a jiff!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Don't get sued

      And not by the movie people, as both names have actually been used by actual companies for actual military projects in the real world.

      Not sure if any of then paid Jim Cameron to use the names though. But s"Skynet" already exists, and there are enough spelling variants of "Cyberdyne" for there to have been typo squatting spats between them.

      This is the dumb time line where people worry about the basilisk getting mad at them if they don't build it. We are going to be wiped out by a dirty telephone eventually, if our own creations don't beat us to it.

  8. M.V. Lipvig Silver badge

    Swarms of aircraft?

    I won't even have to aim, be like shooting swarms of fish in a barrel. I can't miss even with me eyes closed!

  9. Phones Sheridan Silver badge

    Didn't they cover this in The Matrix Revolutions? If there's a swarm of squiddies, i mean drones bearing down on you, just let off an EMP. Then the next war will be an EMP attrition war. He who has the most, lasts longest.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Robot Wars extreme edition

    So when both sides develop this technology, will it be televised with interviews between battles, I guess until the drones become self aware and team up to get revenge on the fleshies!

  11. ecofeco Silver badge

    Swarms of aircarft?

    More like swarms of hyper-sonic missiles with standoff ranges of 100+miles and incredible internal tracking. And those already exist.

    Grim Reapers on YT does war gaming that's about as close to real government military wargaming as we're allowed to see and it's... sobering.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Swarms of aircarft?

      Hybrid cruise / rocket loitering munitions would be another way to put it. And yeah a modified Global Hawk would do the same job probably. So not that new, but cheaper smarter and more of them seems to be the way things are trending.

      And the military war-gaming isn't magic, just generally has access to some non-public information. But plenty of private sector think tanks are doing the same thing with the same type of information and the results are just as good. The problem is that the powers that be aren't listening and don't care. They won't unless we get our face chewed off unexpectedly, because they assume we will have a couple years lead time of warning before anyone else can field something that is a legitimate threat.

      So we are resting on our excellent signals intelligence and spy networks, which is a gamble because out military contractors have repeatedly proven unable to field a working system 20 years past it's initially intended launch date. They also have failed in tenders for new cargo aircraft, new attack helicopters, new fighter aircraft and new bombers. And the company that made our best close air support craft went out of business almost 25 years ago and first flew more than 50 years ago.

      So if we pick a real fight in the next few years, we may be hanging on by our fingernails untill we rediscover the WW2 spirit we lost since the days we could complete multiple green field projects during a single (not 20 year long) war.

      1. low_resolution_foxxes

        Re: Swarms of aircarft?

        Helicopters are worryingly obsolete in the face of modern threats. Too slow, too big and hard to fly without a human operator

        There is a genuine worry that helicopters could only really be applied to semi-controlled regions due to the risk of loitering drones at close contact

  12. TheInstigator

    General quote

    "China, Clarke said, has "stolen from us, they've taken our R&D ... they've actually leapt ahead of us in certain technologies" – such as hypersonics."

    Meanwhile who are the US spying on? Ah yes - their allies

  13. Big_Boomer Silver badge

    Suicidal dumbf**ks!

    Did none of these morons ever watch any of the Terminator movies? What they are proposing is an AI system controlling weapons. The same morons will say that they have it all under control and that they have installed failsafe's, which will be fine until the AI figures out how to bypass the failsafe's. Oh well, at least it'll hasten the end of Homo Stupidus Sapiens and the next species to evolve may do a better job. Every day I am more and more happy I decided to not have kids.

  14. Sanguma

    queue in

    Chris Rea singing This Is The Road To Hell ...

    Stanislaw Lem wrote about this in a little fictious article titled "The Upside-down Evolution" published in a little book titled "One Human Minute" in the 80s, iirc. Applying "artificial instinct" to the miniaturized weaponry - Buckminster Fuller's "ephemeralization" principle at work - soon they had no one at war ... but war never stopped. (When everything tastes like chicken, what does chicken itself taste like?)

    1. Ideasource Bronze badge

      Re: queue in

      If Everything tastes like chicken then chicken tastes genuine.

      To be like something , does not mean to be identical.

      But rather similar with some definite but indescribable difference.

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