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Artificial Intelligence: The Next Frontier in Global Conflict

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

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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By contrast, China has given utmost importance to developing AI systems within its territory. The development is not limited to AI startups and private businesses but has also stretched its hands over the defense sector. While the U.S is heavily investing in the research to discover and innovate strong AI technologies, China on the other side is dominating the AI based industrial establishments. Not only does China possess much touted advanced commercial capabilities in AI and machine learning, but more importantly, it has a coherent national strategy, which establishes decisive and clearly delineated goals and aspirations such that both the commerce and military sectors can and should work towards. China’s state-led strategy builds on the country’s national technological titans, the likes of which can be seen in China emerging to have dominance over ‘ Global Technological Markets’.

Image 10: China’s Growing Investment in AI

Where does India stand?

India is also a potential member of the global race as it has worked voraciously in the development of AI technology within its defense sector. International journals claim that India stands at 7th while China stands 5th considering its increasing investment in AI startups and defense technologies. The Department of Defence in India established a 17-member task force in February 2018 to study the systematic deployment of AI technologies. The task force will examine the utilization and impact of these technologies in military affairs and how it will further aggrandize the economically and technologically driven emerging market. The establishment consists of several other agencies which greatly uphold the defense decision of India.

Defense institutions like the military forces, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Atomic Energy Commission, Ministry of Defence and Atomic Energy Association (Sharma, 2018) are key players in the working of established task force which have the responsibility to regulate the deployment and application of AI systems. India has abundant diplomatic experience in arms control, which possibly the AI algorithms can ‘deep learn’ and simulate to chart out a better arms control strategy for Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs). More than a technology developer or consumer, India can play a vital role in defining the multilateral rules of the road and help in setting up the best ethical standards to dissuade any arms race in LAWs, while ensuring safe and beneficial Artificial Intelligence for all (Sharma 2018)


In the analysis, the global community has markedly performed the tightrope act when balancing the breakthroughs in AI between rising imminent threats from AI and the well-being of the human race. The technological advancement in AI has advanced at a rapid pace, with the international legal and ethical responses seemingly struggling to catch up, let alone respond. AI possesses a distinctive ‘dual-use’ nature. While its benefits for humanity can be elucidated into a veritable list of positives, they all carry with them, an inconvenient truth - a baggage of risks, arising from a multitude of factors. The issue at hand is not about Human vs. Machines, but rather about harnessing camaraderie between the two in order to arrive at a multidimensional decision-making mechanism which seeks to address much of the risks and criticism levelled against the prospect of primacy of AI Technology. AI has given rise to new geopolitical and geo-economic debates which question the authentic utilization of AI technologies and automation systems (Sharma, 2018).

Hence, all the economically developed nations are transforming the security and defense architecture with increasing deployment of AI technologies and automated weapon systems. The rapidly increasing power of computers is the source of the excitement about developing semi-autonomous and/or autonomous weapons systems (AWS). It is not a new phenomenon to see computers in the center of the relation between technology and war-making.


Private Institutions, Corporations and Governments are increasingly investing in AI technologies for reshaping and enhancing their security and economic structure. Policy makers should keep the humanitarian aspects and ethical limitations in consideration while aggrandizing the deployment of AI technology.

Legal lines and ethical codes should be systematically placed with such interfaces by AI technologies. AI should be utilized responsibly not only at the national level but on the individual level as well.

The Artificial Intelligence Ecosystem is one of the most imperative and effective tools in understanding the capacity of AI technologies and drawing limitations to its use. An efficient task force should be deployed at international and national levels to examine the legalities and utilization of AI considering the increasing global race for it.


The limitations to the deployment of Artificial Intelligence is a distinctive choice which today nations

and states have to wisely step into. AI can redefine our future but cannot possibly determine it. The

international and national policies can balance out the effectiveness of AI technologies and can also

avoid it being the frontier for future global conflict. Powerful nations in the race to expand their

hold over AI, should form a middle or common ground where they systematically follow an

international strategy that comprehensively manages the future security challenges and can instead

take advantage of the benefits of AI technologies while mitigating its disruptive characteristics.


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[1] (2019, September 7). Battle algorithm - Artificial intelligence is changing every .... Retrieved August 19, 2020, from [2] Ibid

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