Dec 4, 2023 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: U.S. not ready for era of robotic, AI world wars

The autonomous Roadrunner-M, billed as a "radical new class of recoverable ground-based air defense capability," was unveiled Friday. Photo: Anduril Industries

America's ability to remain the world's most lethal military hinges on two interrelated — and vexing — mysteries.

  • Can soon-to-retire four-star generals truly foresee the awesome power of artificial intelligence in time to break generation-old habits and shift warfare theories?
  • If they do, can they convince the brightest coding minds to chuck lucrative gigs at Google to build AI-powered systems for America faster or better than their rivals in China?

Why it matters: Future wars will be won with Stanford nerds, faster chips, superior computing power and precision robotics on land, sea and air. Experts tell us that because of a lethal combination of congressional myopia and constipated Pentagon buying rules, America isn't mobilizing fast enough to prevail on future battlefields.

  • "We are witnessing an unprecedented fundamental change in the character of war, and our window of opportunity to ensure that we maintain an enduring competitive advantage is closing," retired Army Gen. Mark Milley, who then was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in a report he wrote shortly before retiring this fall.

What's happening: Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, said at last week's Axios AI+ Summit in Washington that with cutting-edge tech being deployed in Ukraine, a drone is no longer just an uncrewed flying object. It's a "potent software platform" that's a big step toward more automated war.

  • "It's clear that drones and other weapons based on autonomy can replace tanks, artillery and mortars," Schmidt told us in a later interview. "The success of Ukraine and also Russia on the battlefield proves this point."
  • But experts warn the U.S. is still spending too much time and money building aircraft carriers and other outmoded artifacts of analog war, because of the archaic restraints of what the late Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain called the "military-industrial-congressional complex."

What they're saying: Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus — former top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, and former CIA director, who's author of the new bestseller "Conflict" — told us that tanks, ships and planes must be largely supplanted over time by a massive armada of much cheaper, smaller, uncrewed, algorithmically piloted systems.

  • "Aircraft carriers are still vital, as we see in the Middle East right now, but we will have to make choices for the future," Petraeus said.

Future models will increasingly separate the service member from the weapon, letting uncrewed systems do the most dangerous work.

  • "Humans will be on the loop rather than in the loop," Petraeus said. "You will have a human at some point say: 'OK, machine. You're free to take action according to the computer program we established for you' — rather than remotely piloting it."

The big picture: The answers to those two big questions are being determined now, as military experts sound the alarm about ways the tectonic shift in military power is threatening America in real time. Milley's report, "Strategic Inflection Point," is a 10-page wake-up call.

  • "The American homeland has almost always been a sanctuary during conflict, but this will not be the case in a future war," Milley wrote. "Robust space and cyber capabilities allow adversaries to target critical national infrastructure."
  • Milley is among those warning privately that too many four-star generals — typically in their mid-50s to early 60s — are too old and too connected to conventional warfare to shift fast enough, sources tell us.
  • Army Gen. Erik Kurilla — commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East — is seen as the most technologically innovative of the roughly 40 four-stars in the military today.

Zoom in: China — and AI — are the central focus of every future-of-defense conversation. Beijing knows technology alone can help leapfrog America, despite long being outspent by us (though the gap has mostly closed).

  • China has both a 2025 and 2050 plan to displace America as the world's most fearsome nation. And it has 4x as many people to draw from in the hunt for coders, scientists, quantum computing experts and advanced weapon systems architects.
  • Take hypersonic missiles. They move so fast that no modern defense system can come close to shooting them down until moments before they hit. China is far ahead of the U.S. in the hypersonic arms race — a potential scary edge in a conflict over Taiwan or beyond.
  • China has successfully tested a hypersonic missile with a range of at least 1,000 miles, allowing it to reach U.S. forces in the western Pacific, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency scientist told Congress.

Details: Quantum technologies — which include ultra-precise sensors and more secure communications — promise to vastly improve military targeting and encryption.

  • Nimble next-gen defense startups are already vying with legacy giants. Anduril Industries — founded by Palmer Luckey, who designed the head-mounted Oculus Rift and sold the technology to Facebook — on Friday unveiled an autonomous weapons platform, Roadrunner, with a portable hangar so compact it looks like an outhouse. (YouTube)

Reality check: America is crushing China so far in the machine-learning race, with the leading generative AI models designed and housed here.

  • This is a big, if unspoken, reason President Biden is reluctant to regulate AI in meaningful ways. And Silicon Valley is quick to hit this fear hard when lobbying Congress to stay hands-off.

State of play: Michèle Flournoy — former undersecretary of defense for policy, and now co-founder of WestExec Advisors — told us that while every branch of the military has an innovation hub, the risk-averse culture means these efforts "are still on the margins of the main acquisition and budget processes."

  • "The Pentagon has gotten very good at tech-scouting and demonstrating and experimenting and prototyping," Flournoy said. "But actually moving things into production at scale has been a challenge."

What to watch: Experts tell us they expect Washington to pour gobs of new spending into next-gen warfighting as fears rise of China invading Taiwan — a once-distant threat that now could happen in the next presidential term.

  • "The United States is a heartbeat away from a world war that it could lose," Wess Mitchell, an assistant secretary of state for Europe in the last administration, wrote last month in a Foreign Policy article that got a ton of attention in national security circles.

The bottom line: Washington is buying hardware for the last war when it should be buying more software for the next one.

  • "Behind the Curtain" is a column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs and top technologists.
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