Future of warfare is AI, retired US Army general warns

Imagine fighting swarms – swarms – of autonomous planes

RSA Conference 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 with autonomy, and think how are we going to fight with AI swarms and autonomous ships and planes and take small and dispersed [systems] across broad aspects of a warfight."

Former Cisco CEO John Chambers, who founded his JC2 Ventures firm after leaving the networking giant, laid down the gauntlet during the morning keynote, saying: "AI … will be bigger than the internet, and bigger than the cloud combined, in every aspect of defense."

Clarke, who retired last year as the head of US Special Operations Command, said technology has changed the battlefield, and these new tools need to be more rapidly deployed into soldiers' hands for the US military to retain its strength and primacy. 

While the US was hyper-focused on counterterrorism post-9/11, other major global powers were developing their technological weapons to compete against America, Clarke warned.

China, Clarke said, has "stolen from us, they've taken our research and development, and now in some cases, they've actually leapt ahead of us in certain technologies" – such as hypersonics.

Plus, in addition to fighting battles on land, in the air and at sea, modern warfare also happens in space and cyberspace, as the world has witnessed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

"There will not be another major war won without cyber and space being a component," Clarke said, pointing to the use of commercial satellite services during the war. Because they are commercial companies, they can provide non-classified satellite images more rapidly than the government-controlled satellite pictures used in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Of course, satellites are also a big target for cyberattacks, and they can help both sides more effectively and precisely aim kinetic weapons.

"Think about this in the cyber domain: why have there been almost a dozen Russian generals killed? They hang out at the command posts, and using both cyber and space," these satellite images enable Ukrainian forces to better target Russian command posts, he added.

AI's use in fighting future wars will enable all manner of destructive attacks: autonomous planes dropping bombs on cities, or automated malware knocking energy grids offline in the dead of winter. But the military and civil society also needs to consider how enemies can use AI to craft better disinformation campaigns and deepfakes.

The flip side of that coin is using technology for truth: "How we're going to sense out what is true and what is not true," Clarke said. "You can already see the beginnings of it, where our adversaries are trying to divide our country [using] social media. Think what deep fakes could be in the future."

The US needs truth-telling technology to sort the deepfakes from real video and audio, so we can push that out to our allies and even enemies, Clarke opined. 

"How are we going to share that information, how are we going to highlight those deepfakes," he said. "We're going to think about the truth and the information." ®

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