Relevance of the Art of War to Drones and Artificial Intelligence

The daunting threat of swarm warfare is manifested in the following forms. 

6 mins read
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“Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Ancient Art of War and Modern Intelligence

In the modern context of warfare, what is seemingly evident is the devastation that can be brought about by the use of sophisticated and lethal weaponry.  However different these modern catastrophic developments of warfare  are from Twentieth Century technology used in the two World Wars, ancient wisdom could still be relevant and applicable in principle. The ancient text “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu has been celebrated for centuries as an exceptional guide to military strategy. Its principles, originally conceived for traditional combat, are equally applicable to contemporary conflict scenarios involving drone warfare and artificial intelligence (AI). Despite originating in an era of swords and spears, Sun Tzu’s insights have a timeless relevance that continues to inform strategies in today’s high-tech battlefields.

A foundational element of Sun Tzu’s philosophy is the critical role of information and intelligence. In “The Art of War,” he emphasizes the importance of understanding both oneself and the enemy. In the realm of drone warfare and AI, this translates into data collection and analysis. Modern drones, equipped with advanced sensors and cameras, collect real-time data on enemy movements, terrain, and other crucial factors. AI systems process this data, identify patterns, and predict enemy actions, enhancing situational awareness and enabling commanders to make swift, informed decisions.

Sun Tzu also highlights the value of deception in warfare. He advises commanders to project strength when they are weak and to feign weakness when they are strong, thereby confusing and misleading the enemy. In modern drone warfare and AI, deception can be achieved through electronic warfare, decoy drones, and misinformation campaigns. AI algorithms can simulate various scenarios to create false targets, luring enemy forces into traps. This ability to manipulate enemy perception through technology aligns perfectly with Sun Tzu’s strategy of deception.

Another key aspect of Sun Tzu’s teachings is the importance of speed and flexibility. He advocates for quick, adaptable responses to changing battlefield conditions. Drones, with their agility and rapid deployability, embody this principle. AI further enhances this capability by processing vast amounts of information in real-time, allowing for swift tactical adjustments. For instance, AI can reroute drones mid-mission to address new threats or opportunities, maintaining the element of surprise and operational momentum.

Sun Tzu’s advice on leveraging terrain and the environment also finds application in modern warfare. He points out the strategic benefits of controlling key geographical features. In drone warfare, analyzing terrain is crucial for planning and executing missions. AI can analyze topographical data to determine optimal drone deployment routes, utilizing natural cover and minimizing exposure to enemy defenses. This not only increases the effectiveness of drone missions but also ensures the safety of the assets involved.

The concept of economy of force, another of Sun Tzu’s principles, is highly relevant in the age of drone warfare and AI. He emphasizes the importance of conserving resources and using them efficiently to achieve maximum impact. Unmanned drones reduce the risk to human life, and their precision minimizes collateral damage. AI optimizes resource allocation by determining the most efficient use of drones and other assets, ensuring missions are carried out with minimal resource expenditure.

Sun Tzu also discusses the importance of leadership and the moral aspects of warfare. He believes commanders must inspire confidence and maintain troop morale. Even in modern contexts, where technology plays an increasingly significant role, the human element remains crucial. The integration of drones and AI into military operations requires skilled leadership to effectively oversee and coordinate these technologies. Commanders must understand the capabilities and limitations of AI and drones, ensuring their ethical and strategic use.

Adaptability, a principle Sun Tzu stresses, is crucial in the rapidly evolving landscape of drone warfare and AI. He advises that rigid plans are less effective than strategies that evolve in response to the enemy’s actions. AI systems excel in adaptability, capable of learning from new data and adjusting strategies accordingly. Machine learning algorithms can update themselves based on the outcomes of previous missions, continually refining their approach to enhance effectiveness in future operations.

However, while the strategic advantages of drone warfare and AI are substantial, the integration of these technologies also presents significant dangers. The increasing autonomy of drones and the use of AI in making critical decisions raise ethical and safety concerns. Autonomous drones equipped with lethal capabilities could potentially make life-or-death decisions without human intervention, leading to unintended casualties and escalating conflicts. The possibility of hacking or AI malfunction poses additional risks, as compromised drones could be turned against their operators or innocent civilians.

Moreover, the ease of deploying drones lowers the threshold for engaging in warfare, potentially leading to more frequent conflicts. The psychological distance created by remote-controlled or autonomous warfare may also desensitize operators to the human cost of conflict. AI-driven misinformation and deepfakes can further complicate the information landscape, making it difficult to discern truth from deception and potentially leading to miscalculated military responses.

Connecting the Dots

The principles outlined by Sun Tzu in “The Art of War” have profound applications in the realm of drone warfare and artificial intelligence. Emphasizing intelligence, deception, speed, flexibility, terrain, economy of force, leadership, and adaptability, Sun Tzu’s teachings remain relevant in modern military strategy. However, the integration of drones and AI also brings significant risks, highlighting the need for careful consideration and ethical oversight in their deployment. While these technologies offer strategic advantages, their potential dangers must be managed to prevent unintended consequences and ensure they are used responsibly. By applying Sun Tzu’s wisdom to modern warfare and addressing the ethical challenges, military leaders can leverage technological advancements to achieve strategic superiority on the battlefield while mitigating risks.

The greatest danger to conventional warfare, as articulated by numerous top military brass is swarm warfare launched by thousands of armed drones, which could even effectively attack such hitherto invincible tools of warfare as aircraft carriers. Small unmanned aerial systems (sUASs) are establishing an increasingly significant role in military maritime operations. These systems range from hand-launched reconnaissance devices to ship-based surveillance platforms, demonstrating growing usefulness in contemporary military activities. As processing power continues to improve, sUASs are becoming more valuable as powerful observational tools or in coordinated target saturation efforts.

These compact systems vary widely, from miniature quadcopters to larger, lightweight fixed-wing models. Most are equipped with cameras. Their payloads are generally limited by factors such as size, weight, and power constraints. However, advancements in sensor and processing technology are reducing these limitations, allowing for more trade-offs in favor of offensive payloads like explosives or short-burst directed-energy weapons. Deployment methods also differ, including flight-deck launches, hand-tossing, catapult launchers, and compressed air tubes.

My Take

A single sUAS can pose a significant threat. Nevertheless, counterdrone technologies and tactics are also advancing. Swarms of sUASs could present a more intricate challenge. The goal of an offensive swarm is to overwhelm a target rapidly, which can be achieved in various ways. Individual sUASs within a swarm can operate autonomously, network to coordinate maneuvers, collectively designate or switch targets, or potentially create a learning network on the fly to counter a target’s defenses.

The daunting threat of swarm warfare is manifested in the following forms. 

Versatility and Range of sUASs: The variety in sUASs, from tiny quadcopters to larger fixed-wing systems, shows their adaptability to different mission requirements. Their ability to be equipped with various payloads, primarily cameras, but also potentially offensive weaponry, highlights their growing strategic importance.

Technological Advancements: Continuous improvements in sensor and processing technologies are crucial. These advancements help reduce the size, weight, and power demands, enabling sUASs to carry more sophisticated and potentially more lethal payloads.

Deployment Methods: The range of deployment methods, from simple hand-tossing to more complex systems like catapults and compressed air tubes, indicates the flexibility in operational use of sUASs. This versatility allows for rapid deployment in various scenarios, enhancing their effectiveness.

Counterdrone Measures: While sUASs represent a significant threat, the parallel advancement in counterdrone technologies is crucial. This ongoing technological arms race shapes the dynamics of modern warfare, where offense and defense continually evolve.

Swarm Tactics: The concept of sUAS swarms introduces a new level of complexity. Swarms can operate with a high degree of autonomy and coordination, potentially overwhelming defenses through sheer numbers and sophisticated tactics. The idea of a learning network within a swarm suggests a future where these systems can adapt in real-time to counteract defensive measures, making them a formidable challenge.

Understanding these nuances is essential for grasping the strategic implications of sUASs in military operations. Their evolving capabilities and the corresponding countermeasures will likely play a significant role in shaping the future of warfare, particularly in maritime contexts.

To counter this threat, laws and regulations at  international level are necessary.  These instruments must be consensual among all member States of the United Nations and be developed through legal reasoning which recognizes material facts of current relevance; the issues involved; existing legislation and rules; a cogent analysis and conclusions.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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