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UK military to go all-in on Artificial Intelligence

A top UK defence official has vowed to “adopt and exploit AI for defence at scale”, saying in a speech published by HMG today (May 26) that human operators will not be able to defend against “AI-enabled cyber or disinformation attacks, drone swarms or missile attacks without the assistance of AI enabled machines.”

The UK will launch a “Defence AI” centre this summer, with the Ministry of Defence to also publish an AI strategy within months, General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander of Strategic Command revealed, adding that the source of military advantage lies ever less in hardware platforms, and increasingly in the ability to “sense, understand and orchestrate… sensor networks, the data, the PED [processing, exploitation, and dissemination of intelligence] and the effectors: kinetic or non-kinetic” across a given kill-chain.

Defence procurement will need to dramatically improve agility as a result of this rapidly changing landscape, including by developing “a two-speed acquisition system that is fit for software DevSecOps.. and with greater appetite for risk”, he added. (Defence procurement is a notoriously cumbersome enterprise.)

“Even the best human operator cannot defend against multiple machines making thousands of manoeuvres per second at hypersonic speeds and orchestrated by AI across domains,” General Sanders emphasised in the speech at the RUSI Strategic Command Conference published May 26 — pointing to a “technological tsunami” spanning biotech, chips, robotics and 5G but of which Artificial Intelligence was, he emphasised, “first among equals”.

AI for Defence at Scale: 3 key principles

AI for defence
“Snakes and dragons”: General Sanders referred to former CIA Director James Woolsey’s characterisation of national security threats being composed of Dragons and Snakes: the former “more powerful and malign and the Snakes more prolific and diverse” than ever, he noted. Image shows drones being used in a light show in China — deemed a “Dragon”.

This shift in defence landscape requires a fundamental corresponding shift in how the UK approaches its defence strategy and procurement, as well as a wholesale cultural shift across the three branches of the UK’s military in order to ensure greater coordination.

The UK is “putting the fundamentals in place” to remain a power in this arena, beginning with an AI strategy, to be published this summer, he revealed, in a speech that suggest an era of public pussy-footing around the use of AI in defence is firmly over. This will be guided by three core principles, the RUSI speech revealed.

These will comprise 1) Adoption and exploitation of AI for defence at scale; 2) Catalysing and strengthening “the UK Defence and Security ecosystem for global leadership” and 3) Shaping the global development of AI to “support security, stability and democratic values” General Sanders said.

“For Strategic Command, this begins with the establishment of a Defence AI centre this year as part of a wider digital ecosystem across Defence that we call The Foundry”, he revealed.

“The hardware won’t change between now and 2025 but the software will and our ability to exploit data with AI, establish a single information environment and extend our reach in cyberspace will allow us to push the boundaries of MDI [multi-domain integration] with innovation and agility. “

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AI for defence speech, General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander of Strategic Command
General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander of Strategic Command

The most valuable insight for the UK’s defence sector will come from operations, General Sanders added.

“We will need to experiment and adapt as we harness new technology and new techniques… here we have an inherent advantage with our special forces and PJHQ… already practising MDI, combining effects through cyberspace and space, with platforms and manoeuvre by air, land and sea to achieve cognitive and physical effects, overt and covert, in partnership with other government departments.”

In positive sounds for the UK’s defence and intelligence partners in the tightly managed markets for which HMG wants to retain sovereign capabilities (meaning restricted exports and a heavily reliance on UK government procurements) the government will need to “incentivise industrial partners by refreshing capabilities constantly [and] develop strategic partnerships including with SMEs,” General Sanders said, adding: “The PUS [Ed: permanent under-secretary David Williams] is determined to unlock this and you can press him on it in the final session.”

This increased focus on AI and other technologies, along with much faster innovation will require a real cultural shift across defence, General Sir Patrick Sanders, Commander of Strategic Command concluded.

“We are still largely and recognisably a tri-service organisation. Coordination across the services is still more of an afterthought than a reflex… Our approach to managing rare talent and skills that are needed across domains is still stove-piped, though our approach to managing cyber talent offers a model for how to change this.”

See also: The UK is a “big animal in the digital world” — but won’t be for long without sustained investment: GCHQ

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Ed Targett

Ed Targett is founder of The Stack. He has previously served as editor at Tech Monitor, Computer Business Review, and Roubini Global Economics.

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