Military applications at centre of Britain’s plans to be AI superpower

The UK government published its National AI Strategy in mid-September, billed as a “ten-year plan to make Britain a global AI superpower”.  Despite the hype, the strategy has so far attracted curiously little comment and interest from the mainstream media.  This is a cause for concern  because if the government’s proposals bear fruit, they will dramatically change UK society and the lives of UK Citizens.  They will also place military applications of AI at the centre of the UK’s AI sector.

The Strategy sets out the government’s ambitions to bring about a transition to an “AI-enabled economy” and develop the UK’s AI industry, building on a number of previously published documents – the 2017 Industrial Strategy and 2018 AI Sector Deal, and the ‘AI Roadmap‘ published by the AI Council earlier this year.  It sets out a ten year plan based around three ‘pillars’: investing in the UK’s AI sector, placing AI at the mainstream of the UK’s economy by introducing it across all economic sectors and regions of the UK, and governing the use of AI effectively.

Unsurprisingly, in promoting the Strategy the government makes much of the potential of AI technologies to improve people’s lives and solve global challenges such as climate change and public health crises – although making no concrete commitments in this respect.  Equally unsurprisingly it has far less to say up front about the military uses of AI.  However, the small print of the document states that “defence should be a natural partner for the UK AI sector” and reveals that the Ministry of Defence is planning to establishment a new Defence AI Centre, which will be “a keystone piece of the modernisation of Defence”, to champion military AI development and use and enable the rapid development of AI projects.  A Defence AI Strategy, expected to be published imminently, will outline how to “galvanise a stronger relationship between industry and defence”.  Read more

CAA opens UK skies to military drones

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted permission to US drone company General Atomics to conduct experimental flights of its new SkyGuardian drone in UK airspace. The MoD is buying 16 SkyGuardian drones, but renaming them as ‘Protector’. This is the first time that large military drones will be allowed to fly in the UK outside of segregated airspace and the decision will be seen as a breakthrough by the drone industry, who will see it as the beginning of opening UK skies to a whole host of drones to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS).

The news came in an ‘airspace alert’ issued by the CAA following the announcement that temporary airspace rules were to be put in place around the bases where the drone will be based. The terse, one-sentence paragraph in the alert said:

“The CAA has also completed an in-depth review and issued the authorisation to General Atomics operate within the UK.”

The lack of detail reflects the lack of transparency about the process to allow General Atomics to use its largely untried and untested ‘Detect and Avoid’ (DAA) equipment in the flights.

General Atomics has developed its DAA equipment to supposedly replicate an on-board pilot’s ability to ‘see and avoid’ danger. This is the bedrock upon which all air safety measures are built and – as we reported back in 2018 – regulators at the CAA were deeply sceptical as to whether remote technology can replace an on-board pilot in busy airspace such as UK skies. Test flights of the drone in the US last summer, which were due to fly over San Diego, were routed away from city after apparent concerns from US safety regulators.  Read more

RAF drone programmes fly into stormy skies

BAe System image of Tempest aircraft with accompanying drones

Funding for the ‘Tempest’ Future Combat Air System which is intended to replace the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft is “significantly less than required” and “adds significant overall programme risk” to delivery of the new jet, according to a report on government project management published jointly by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

In its first assessment of the Tempest programme the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which reports jointly to the two government departments, reveals that successful delivery of the aircraft is already “in doubt”.  Another high profile drone project, delivery of the RAF’s new ‘Protector’ aircraft, rated a similar assessment.

Tempest is under joint development by Italy, Sweden, and the UK as the next generation combat aircraft for the three nations – a high performance, high cost system consisting of a core aircraft, which is likely to be able to fly in both crewed and uncrewed modes, with an associated network of swarming drones, sensors, and data systems.

The IPA, which each year rates the performance of government departments in delivering major projects, has scored the Future Combat Air System programme with an Amber / Red risk rating in its report for the 2020-21 financial year.  This means that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to address these problems and assess whether resolution is feasible”.  Read more

MoD report urges embrace of human augmentation to fully exploit drones and AI for warfighting

Click to open report from MoD website.

The MoD’s internal think-tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) along with the German Bundeswehr Office for Defence Planning (BODP) has published a disturbing new report urging greater investigation of – and investment in – human augmentation for military purposes. The following is a brief summary of the 100+ page document with short comment at the end.

Human Augmentation – The Dawn of a New Paradigm’ argues that humans are the ‘weakest link’ in modern warfare, and that there is a need to exploit scientific advances to improve human capabilities.

“Increasing use of autonomous and unmanned systems – from the tactical to the strategic level – could significantly increase the combat effect that an individual can bring to bear, but to realise this potential, the interfaces between people and machines will need to be significantly enhanced. Human augmentation will play an important part in enabling this interface.”

Suggested human augmentation to explore for military purposes includes the use of brain interfaces, pharmaceuticals and gene therapy.  Humans, argues the report, should be seen as a ‘platform’ in the same way as vehicles, aircraft and ships, with three elements of ‘the human platform’ to be developed: the physical, the psychological and the social (see image below). Read more

No Space for Peace in the Integrated Security Review

The UK government sees space technology as being of fundamental importance to global power projection.

In March, the UK government published their ‘Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’, titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’ it describes the government vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade.

There has been a lot of discussions on various parts of the review – especially the increases in the UK nuclear arsenal and military spending – but not so much about the parts that deal with the UK military space policy.  This is also an important part of the Review that needs closer examination.

Boris Johnson makes an interesting comment in the Forward:

“…we will continue to defend the integrity of our nation against state threats, whether in the form of illicit finance or coercive economic measures, disinformation, cyber-attacks, electoral interference or even … the use of chemical or other weapons of mass destruction.

The emphasis in the above has been added to highlight parts relating to what has become known as ‘hybrid warfare’, operations carried out in a ‘grey zone’ between war and peace, which uses political warfare, conventional warfare, cyberwarfare and other subversive influencing methods. This form of covert warfare is now a common component of security strategies.

An Integrated Strategy Serving Military and Commercial Interests

The Review stresses the perceived need to develop “a dynamic space programme” to be underwritten by “the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.” This is to be partially achieved by the development of “an integrated space strategy which brings together military and civil space policy.

UKSpace, the trade association of the British space industry, and the RAF have established a Commercial Integration Cell (CIC) at the MoD’s Space Operations Centre (SpOC) in High Wycombe to work on programmes that jointly serve commercial and military interests.

This civil/military collaboration has already begun – in 2008 the government awarded Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) over £4 million to develop Carbonite 2, a small, low-orbit satellite launched in 2018 to provide high-resolution reconnaissance for intelligence gathering for the MoD. This evolved into Artemis, a project led by the RAF with Airbus, its subsidiary SSTL, Raytheon, the US government and Virgin Orbit as partners. In addition, in 2019 the MoD announced a £30 million military space programme for the development of small satellites and US aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin received £23.5 million to help develop spaceports in the UK. Other defence contractors, such as Raytheon and BAE Systems, are also wanting to become more involvedRead more

As the government set out its plans to fund hi-tech war, can you donate to help our work?

Dear Friends,

Last week Boris Johnson published his government’s Integrated Review of defence, security and foreign policy, setting out the government’s commitment to develop and use emerging military technology to engage in both overt and ‘grey zone’ warfare.

Today will see the publication of a Defence Command Paper, giving more detail on which military programmes and defence company projects will receive funding for developments “in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future” as Boris Johnson put it.

Boris Johnson flies a drone during a military exercise on Salisbury Plain in 2019.

Over the past decade Drone Wars has scrutinized and challenged the government’s use of drones and other emerging technology and we very much need your help to continue to do so. Read more