Artificial Intelligence: The Next Frontier in Global Conflict

Updated: Aug 24

Abstract: Artificial Intelligence has developed systems that today are equivalent and capable of tackling complex problems in ways similar to human reasoning power. AI holds much power and promises to secure International governments and State governments. With increased connectivity of AI systems, more sophisticated sensor data, and better algorithmic systems, AI applications may prove beneficial in securing basic needs and alleviating human security. But here the article throws light on the other aspect of the growing deployment of AI. Today, national security in the governmental form is crossing the rubicon by giving major importance to the deployment of AI and has brought drastic technological advancement in the defence sector which in near future has the capability to shape warfare. Therefore, AI here is perceived as a dangerous weapon in the global order where terrorism and intrastate conflicts are on the rise. The article further elucidates the risks and challenges that are possible in the future due to the unethical application of AI. While understanding the global security aspects of AI, it could have more acute impacts, though likely on a longer timeframe. It can lead to creating a power gap between those actors equipped with such systems and those without – with notably unpredictable results. Hence, the nations will be claimed ‘powerful’ and called ‘developed’ not only on the basis of economic, military and political power but also on which country claims a powerful and advanced AI system.


War has been fundamentally driven by conscious human action and the collective actions and interactions of humans within networks and organizations in human history. Now, advances within Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies have transformed the foundation of traditional security. The non-human entities i.e machines, robots, bots, and automated weapons have a more powerful agency over the human entity. This has the capability to bring radical and utmost changes in future warfare which will further lead to a redesign of the global security structure. The formal debate over lethal autonomous weapons systems that can select and fire at targets on their own began in earnest about half a decade ago under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the international community’s principal mechanism for banning systems and devices did not seem constructive to use in war. CCW has not yet set a blueprint for how to rein the use of lethal weapons in the global security structure. Meanwhile, the technology is advancing ferociously and militaries aren’t going to wait for diplomats to pin down the exact meaning of slippery terms such as “meaningful human control” before sending advanced warbots into battle. The pace amongst the countries to deploy AI technologies is aggrandizing. China has claimed to become the “Premier Global AI innovation Centre'' by the year 2030 which is not far away. The future world will be further divided along demographic, economic and most importantly technological lines. Artificial Intelligence has become another systematic challenge apart from Climate Change and other socio-economic issues that the world is confronted with.

The Weaponization of Artificial Intelligence

Analyzing the development of Artificial Intelligence through a historical lens is in order. The term AI was coined in 1956, and the early research in the 1950s was confined to problem-solving and symbolic methods. The interest of the United States of America (US) Department of Defense led towards mimicking basic human reasoning during the 1960s. The use of ‘neural networks’ dominated the period from 1950 to 1970s. AI research further graduated towards ‘machine learning’ algorithms from the 1980s to about 2010. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) developed intelligent personal assistants in 2003, long before its private sector manifestation such as Siri, Alexa or Cortana came into existence (Pandya, 2019). If such rapid trends and progress are anything to go by, Artificial Intelligence as a ‘technological conduit’ has the power to revolutionize defence systems today (Pandya, 2019).

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Technological development has seen itself degrade into a mad scramble for the best and the most effective tools especially with the competing powers often dangerously crossing or threatening to cross well-defined boundaries of sobriety. In the global scuffle to lead the emerging technology race and the futuristic warfare battleground, AI has become a key centre of the global order of the present international system.

The evolution of Artificial Intelligence is pushing the human civilization towards unprecedented algorithmic warfare that has no boundaries or borders, and this warfare may or may not have human supervision, and will be an insurmountable task to exercise complete control across the human ecosystem in cyberspace, geospace, and space (CGS). Hence, the very idea of the weaponization of a technology whose scope we’re yet to completely comprehend (Artificial Intelligence’s) and which can empower a weapon system with a capability to engage itself with human and non-human targets without any intervention or comprehensive control by a human designer or an operator, has induced justified fears and clamor from varied quarters of the global opinion. All the nations are rushing to develop their own automated weapons and design more AI technologies within their defence sector because being stronger at AI deployment today makes a nation globally powerful and claims its dominance over technology and future warfare. The biggest risks that this automated intelligence brought with itself was the deployment and implementation of autonomous weapon systems. AI today is playing a substantial role in the decision making of National Security and Military Affairs. ‘Project Maven’ established by the Pentagon has developed AI equipment like drones and bots for the military to capture various confidential videos and carry out surveillance which is further presented to analysts in order to comprehend different patterns of their counterparts and be aware of any external attack. All the preparedness by countries like Russia, China, and the U.S is to counter the future hyper war situation. AI will give rise to another ‘Cold War’ and ‘Technology Race’ to change the global power system.

Understanding the Battle of Algorithms

Reflecting upon the historical events, we aim to understand strides in technological development and trajectory of potential risks in increasing AI advancements.

Operation Igloo White

Operation Igloo White was a covert United States joint military electronic warfare operation conducted from late January 1968 until February 1973, during the Vietnam War[1]. This state of warfare operations utilized electronic sensors, computers, and communications relay aircraft in an attempt to automate intelligence collection. The system would then assist in the direction of strike aircraft to their targets. Operation Igloo White was the future of war during the Vietnam War. America’s effort to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail running from Laos into Vietnam was not a success. It cost around $1bn a year (about $7.3bn in today’s dollars), $100,000 ($730,000 today) for every truck destroyed, and it did not stop infiltration[2]. But the allure of semi-automated war never faded. The idea of collecting data from sensors, processing them with algorithms, fuelled by ever-more processing power and acting on the output more quickly than the enemy, lies at the heart of military thinking across the world’s biggest powers. And today that is being supercharged by new developments in artificial intelligence.

Image 2: Establishment of Igloo White


Image 3: U.S. Navy OP-2E Neptune of VO-67, a variant of a naval patrol bomber and anti-submarine warfare aircraft specifically developed for the project



Stuxnet has come to be termed and understood as the world’s first digital weapon which added another dimension to the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. In January 2010, inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on an inspection tour of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in Iran noticed that centrifuges used to enrich uranium gas were failing at an unprecedented rate. The cause was an enigma — apparently as much to the Iranian technicians replacing the centrifuges as to the inspectors observing them. The outcome of the Stuxnet virus came into the picture after five months, the seemingly unrelated event in Belarus provided the clue-crumbs to this discovery. The computers were disastrously rebooting and crashing, scientists in the Natanz plant were baffled with what was happening. Later, the researchers and various technicians found the files that had corrupted the plants and this is how the world's first digital weapon and an outcome of AI technologies emerged to be called ‘Stuxnet Virus’.

Image 4: Centrifuges in Natanz Plant (Stuxnet Virus)


Instead of hacking the computers to steal the confidential information hidden within the computers, the system was only destroyed by the virus. Further, this destruction led to the fall of other uranium plants. The Stuxnet virus was one of the every prominent cyber attack by the U.S. to quietly destroy the plants which were the secretive part of Iran’s secretive mission. This attack emerged from the utilization of AI technology and not taking into consideration the non-ethical consequences.

Image 5: Victims of Stuxnet Virus


The countries who created the virus soon found that Stuxnet was getting beyond their control as it grew and proliferated (probably much to their dismay and worry) and Russia and Iran got wind of this. This paved the way for the creation of new Artificial intelligence viruses which acted like just the way nuclear weapons did during the Cold War. Much of the intensity of the Cold War can be attributed to nuclear weapons and their proliferation between rival states. Today, as well as in the future, weaponized AI viruses and their proliferation can lead to the kind of tensions (and even conflicts) associated with the historical cold war, apart from the sizable risks that it already poses to global security today.

Targeted Killings through UAVs

When it comes to taking the fight to the terrorists, tracking their leaders or important members, and taking actions including killing them it does not count as an assassination and is deemed a targeted killing instead. Assassinations are generally highly condemned. However, such targeted killings have long been a “convenient” tool for several militaries and governments, most notably for Israel. The Israeli Army has been known to consistently employ assassinations of specific leaders or functionaries in their fight against the Hamas militants after their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Their justification has been that the difficulties or rather realities of geography and existing structures (especially civilian) of Gaza puts the Israeli forces at a disadvantage vis-a-vis Hamas who know the lay of the land like the back of their hand. Hence, for Israel, capturing wanted militants is an almost insurmountable task.

Image 6: Targeted Killing’ on the Hamas Member Vehicle in Israel – Palestine conflict


Utilizing information technologies as tools to fight against Hamas (as well as other Anti-Israel militant groups) provided the Israeli army with the advantages it needed to blunt or surpass obstacles in their military operations. The model the Israelis deployed is not unique only to their operations. It has also been adopted by the US army in their fight against radical Islamist terrorists especially during the Bush and Obama Administrations where they employed similar tactics. Currently, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known drones- can be used for executing ‘signature strikes’ which, in its simplest form, means that individuals can be targeted based solely on their behaviours. Hence, in this risk analysis of A.I., it is prudent to observe that advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) have enabled operations, strikes and tactics, previously thought to be unfeasible, and this has a potentially destabilizing effect on the delicate balances that have obviated nuclear war since 1945.

Global Race for Artificial Intelligence

As Artificial intelligence is evidently on track to become a significant tool of consequence in the expansion of power on a global scale, the leading nations of both the developing and developed worlds are at the forefront in the global race to achieve the greatest strides in the least possible time in the realm of A.I. technology. Countries like the USA and Israel are said to have developed the best drone technologies. India too buys drones from them. Hence, before that, it becomes important to question why are drones developed? What are the reasons behind the invention of drones? Drones, which were initially called UAVs were replaced by the jet fighters who conducted the surveillance of borders for security purposes. There was danger to human life and lots of jet fighters were killed in that process. Later, that was replaced by drones which have become an important tool in the way wars are fought. However,countries have crossed the ethical and moral lines in the use of drone technology. Drones have made ‘Bombing’ an easier way to attack, for example — Afghanistan where bombings through drones are a common occurence (Service, 2019).

While examining and analyzing the growing competition between the U.S, Russia and China, Israel is also a big player in this global race and cannot be written off. Israel is developing various AI technologies and a number of startups that are equivalent to the one’s expanding in China. Approximately, $7.5 billion are raised by AI startups within Israel. Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel is the AI hub which has come up with innovation of hacking running cars and even hacking its internal systems. In Israel, with one of the strongest defense bases and military troops, there is extensive and expansionist utilization of AI technologies in the defense realm. Israel too is greatly investing in deploying automated weapons and strengthening their Intelligence agencies and National security policies. In Southeast Asia, Singapore is the most developed country which has enhanced its defense and economic sector. Countries like China, the U.S and India are furthering interest and building international cooperation with Singapore. Therefore, Singapore too is deploying AI technologies in its defense sector and is culminating to become a global hotspot for AI technologies and AI hubs. Germany has also been making drones which can be used in future security purposes like the ‘Mikado’, a German forces drone in Munster. Germany, since the world wars, has portrayed its immense engineering capabilities to the world. A Mikado drone attached with small explosives is used for targeted killings and has the capability to undertake untraceable and difficult assassinations. The increasing innovation of German drones explains their preparedness for future warfare.

Image 8: ‘Mikado’- German Drone in Munster


Battle of Titans

The Pentagon has the most developed and sophisticated AI systems because the U.S has invested its time and money in research. All the development is credited to their strong research teams and security policies. One of the research foundations called the National Science Foundation has extended a hand to the United States by investing over $100 million per year in research that focuses on developing AI technologies and designing their application structure. On the other side, where AI is cumulatively used in its defense system, DARPA, the U.S defense agency announced an investment of around $2 billion in AI research. DARPA has also established an initiative called ‘AI Next’ which covers the future possibilities and applications of AI over the governing systems and security structures. Meanwhile, the U.S. military also has established a new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) to work on strategizing the several defense agencies like the Pentagon that get regulated under the Congress service. The Trump administration’s focus is not only rejuvenating the economic market and growth of the U.S but is also strengthening National Security by upgrading the research within the realm of AI technological systems and increasing the deployment of automated weapon systems.

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