AI AT WAR: HOW BIG DATA, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, AND MACHINE LEARNING ARE CHANGING NAVAL WARFARE

December 9, 2021
Posted by: CHRIS O’FLAHERTY

This excellent collection of expertly authored chapters is a well written, balanced and highly informative exploration of the current state and future impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on maritime warfighting. Setting out the premise of the book in the preface it seeks to “drill down through the advances and … the hype to identify both the applications and the limitations of AI to naval warfighting.” Through the subsequent 19 chapters, each written by relevant subject-area specialists, it deftly navigates the reader along a carefully planned cognitive journey to deliver exactly as promised.

The first two chapters very sensibly explore and clarify the glossary associated with the over-used moniker of ‘AI’. With Aristotle and Plato meeting Turing and Leibniz, it helpfully decides that AI is “the capability of a machine to imitate human behaviour”. Drilling into this definition, AI can thus be as simple as replicating the human processes of an Able Seaman radar operator who decides to initiate a command-system auto-track on the radar echo of an aircraft, through to a different facet of AI replicating at machine speed the nuanced and balanced decisions of a Force Air Warfare Officer or Component Commander as they assimilate command system, visual and intelligence data alongside weapon allocation and Rules of Engagement requirements, to make and promulgate force-wide warfighting decisions.

Using as a baseline the term ‘algorithmic warfare’, the enlighteningly broad selection of subsequent chapters then dive into various AI challenges, such as the need for navies to overcome internal cultural obstacles to change.  With AI as one of the keys to proliferating successful battlefield ‘uninhabited systems’, if we are to win in future conflict we must also overcome parallel challenges such as the legal and ethical considerations of AI exemplified by the diverging national approaches being pursued by, for example, the United States, Russia and China. This specific national series of viewpoints is especially enlightening as it highlights that China is not only pursuing the embedding of AI across their machine-speed warfighting force, it is also investing in counter-drone and counter-AI technologies to consciously defeat an opponents’ parallel AI efforts. Thus, AI is seen by most people as a vital part of a successful future warfighting force, especially at the tactical level, but for the wise it must not become the totality of that future force … those too reliant on centralised AI may otherwise suffer operational defeat at digital speed.

Within such forces there are notable contrasts between national approaches and also across implementation within each nations’ varying constructs. These include the speed with which user trust is being developed in the use of AI technologies, paralleled with the degree of restraint (or otherwise) placed on AI-based decision systems – especially those delivering kinetic effect.  A key driver (or impediment) in the implementation of ‘unrestrained’ AI is the code of moral libertarianism within each nation, which is a facet of AI that is often omitted from technical explorations but which is key to understanding its global military utility. As noted in one chapter, the ability of a navy to use AI to “attack effectively first”, in pursuit of maritime victory, appears to be being tempered in some countries (the West!) by such moral libertarianism, with the wartime consequences of such restraints not fully factored into the underpinning peacetime debates.

The consistent theme of the book is the military use of AI as a “means to deal with the [battlefield] data deluge, [to] mitigate cognitive overload, and provide commanders with decision aids that expedite their ability to develop, evaluate, and decide upon courses of action”. Balanced with regular reminders that AI must be used as an additive C2 enabler, and must not be allowed to become a commanders’ distracting disabler during enemy deception operations, or in contested electronic warfare or cyber-attack environments, the excellent editing and interlinking of the chapters marks this as one of the best volumes on the subject that this reviewer has read.

We must not underestimate the potential for a wide variety of AI applications, processes and aids to affect positively the entire gamut of maritime operations, from personnel, peacetime maintenance, and routine navigation through to kinetic warfighting victory. The various chapters in this book act as a first-rate primer for many of the topics that need to be understood as part of developing and implementing this future, with the totality of the book giving the reader a superb non-technical grounding across the full spectrum of the subject. An excellent work, it is thoroughly recommended to anyone who wishes to develop their understanding of what is an inevitable, but occasionally controversial, next step in the evolution of maritime warfare.