This article is part of CEPA’s “Age of Autonomy” series, which looks at the growing use and implementation of autonomous technologies on the battlefield and its implications for transatlantic defense and security.

Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has seen the increasing integration of autonomous and uncrewed systems into all aspects of warfare. For NATO and its members, this rapidly advancing technology is no longer a problem of tomorrow, but one of today. The alliance and its members must urgently address the challenges and opportunities that arise from these systems.

While there are differing definitions of what constitutes an autonomous system, NATO defines it as a system that decides and acts to accomplish desired goals, within defined parameters, based on acquired knowledge and evolving situational awareness, following an optimal but potentially unpredictable course of action. The system’s operator defines its parameters and objectives, but the system directs itself via artificial intelligence (AI). In the case of uncrewed aerial systems, an autonomous drone can communicate, reroute, and make decisions based on the data it gathers about its environment, eliminating the need for continual human operation. Applying autonomy to a network of drones also enables drone swarming, allowing for the drone network to execute missions as a single, focused entity.

Accelerated Adoption at Scale in Ukraine

Drones and other robots have operated remotely with limited levels of automation since the 1960s. The same way cellphones evolved from pure communication devices to internet-connected computers, uncrewed systems are becoming intelligent, with the ability to operate with varying degrees of autonomy and in networked formations. Earlier uncrewed aerial vehicles moved the operator of the aircraft to the ground, reducing risk and cost but still following a crewed mission profile. This is no longer required with autonomous systems. Likewise, autonomy is revolutionizing the other traditional domains, with autonomous surface vessels, submarines, and land vehicles all undergoing various stages of testing, production, and deployment.

Uses of autonomous and uncrewed systems have proliferated on the battlefield in Ukraine. Cheap, mass-produced aerial drones, including modified commercial systems, have become essential to reconnaissance and targeting. Both sides have used loitering munitions, from the US-provided Switchblade to the Russian Lancet-3, that rely on computer vision to identify and reach targets. In October, Ukrainian forces damaged multiple Russian ships in the port of Sevastopol via a massed drone attack that employed as many as 16 uncrewed aerial vehicles and surface vessels. While this attack likely involved human operators, it demonstrated the potential of a coordinated drone swarm to overwhelm traditional defenses.

The intensity and scale of Russia’s war in Ukraine are accelerating the development of military drones at an unprecedented pace and present challenges and opportunities to both counter and effectively use uncrewed and autonomous systems. For example, with new satellite communication networks, drones can become intelligent nodes (sensors and/or effectors) in a networked autonomous system that can collectively and collaboratively solve tasks, such as providing real-time reconnaissance of a whole section of the frontline, even if individual units fail or are rendered nonfunctioning (e.g., shot down).

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A Major Gap in Defense Capabilities

Efforts are underway by NATO leadership, as well as the United States and other individual members, to address the challenges and opportunities that autonomous and uncrewed systems present to security. NATO is using its 2022 Autonomy Implementation Plan and its 2021 AI Strategy to focus on the responsible development and use of autonomy, green autonomy, and protecting the alliance’s technological edge over competitors and adversaries.

The US government is concentrating on interagency work to align departments and agencies on emerging technology as it relates to national security. To that end, the US Department of Defense is focused on the use of autonomous systems in warfare and the decision-making ladder needed to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Though there are ongoing efforts to align individual allies’ work on autonomy with alliance goals and objectives, especially in research and development, this needs to happen at a quicker pace. Speed is essential to meet the challenge of autonomous systems and other disruptive technologies that are critical to the warfare issues of the future. There must be much more cohesion of policy and implementation across the alliance to understand the needs of the warfighter and provide the defenses necessary to combat autonomous systems on the battlefield.

Five Key Considerations to Address Challenges Around Autonomous and Uncrewed Systems

As NATO seeks to answer the strategic and tactical questions surrounding autonomous systems development and implementation, there are five key considerations to address:

  1. Addressing the question of cost versus sophistication. The international community is seeing unprecedented use of autonomous technology in Russia’s war in Ukraine. The question remains: How do NATO members approach the increasing scale of use of this technology while balancing technical sophistication with ease of use and implementation? We are at an inflection point in understanding the battlefields of today and the future, seeing the use of traditional, conventional military strategy mixed with new and quickly evolving technology. As actors like Iran or Ukraine can build military strike drones for under $30,000 per unit, there needs to be consideration of the balance of underlying technological sophistication versus cost and complexity.
  2. Moving toward increased commercial/military cooperation and embracing dual-use technology. Cutting across defense industrial base issues, cooperation and collaboration between commercial entities and the military is critical. The dominant strategy of building large numbers of smaller, cheaper, and nimbler offensive and defensive uncrewed systems requires significant economies of scale. This model can only be implemented by leveraging dual-use technologies and companies that operate both in the defense and commercial markets.
  3. Incorporating autonomous systems into integrated defense. As the 2022 US National Defense Strategy emphasizes, integrated deterrence should “[work] seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, and spectrum of conflict.” NATO has a strategic deterrence and defense concept, a recently agreed family of plans from strategic to regional, and a new Force Model for ensuring forces at scale and at the speed of relevance are identified to meet its new defense plans’ requirements. The alliance and allies must determine what role autonomous and uncrewed systems have in alliance defense plans and concepts.
  4. Preparing for multiple-domain use of autonomous and uncrewed systems. NATO and its members must consider the use of autonomous and uncrewed systems not solely in the air domain but also in the other physical domains — sea, ground, and space. NATO must also consider how cyber capabilities support autonomous and uncrewed systems and the software and hardware vulnerabilities that must be secured, as well as how the vulnerabilities of adversaries’ systems can be exploited.
  5. Addressing government authorities and acquisition processes. Many considerations related to speed and process coincide with the growing cooperation between the commercial sector and military, but governments must also consider how their acquisition processes affect the speed at which a technology can be developed, procured, and put on the battlefield. The “just-in-time” model of procuring needed equipment and platforms no longer meets the needs of the warfighter. The alliance and allies must not lose their technological edge due to outdated and cumbersome government processes. Rather, allies must work to reduce hurdles and accelerate the acquisition process.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Redefining domain superiority in conflict

In this period of great-power competition, advances in autonomous and uncrewed systems may have an impact in any contingency. As NATO addresses the Russian threat and watches the pacing threat from China, domain superiority is critical. Currently, with full autonomy, a few soldiers could launch dozens or hundreds of aerial drones in short succession, saturating air defenses. This means allies need to develop a new model of air superiority where traditional means of air defense are augmented with new, potentially autonomous anti-drone systems. Similar considerations must be made to address the threat of massed uncrewed systems in other physical domains.

Understanding the defining role of software

The ability to form and deploy networked formations of uncrewed systems depends on them using compatible operating systems, such that the same coordinating application can be deployed on all of them at once. While hardware characteristics remain critical and help differentiate between vendors, running proprietary and custom software undermines networking capabilities. This challenge will require shifting the conversation toward software-defined systems.

Required changes in government acquisition

Autonomous systems require a software-first approach to acquisition, meaning that the operating system and software are more important than the drone system they run on. Software is key not just to the performance of individual systems, determining their ability to detect threats and make decisions, but also to their ability to integrate into a broader network of systems via coordination and data exchange. Autonomous systems will require continuous updates of their operating systems, AI models, and data protocols to ensure that they are secure, capable, and interoperable, with suppliers constantly engaged. In the future, buying autonomous systems will be more like buying IT equipment than traditional defense assets. The procurement process for allies must reflect this evolution in technology use and implementation.

Skip Davis is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

Lorenz Meier is Co-Founder and CEO of Auterion.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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