Defence has started to explore using autonomous systems on the battlefield, but it’s now time to accelerate their development and adoption by the ADF.
The many benefits that autonomous weapons systems can potentially provide to militaries have been widely recognised. They include:
- removing humans from high-threat environments
- breaking out of manned platforms’ vicious cost cycle
- achieving greater mass on the battlefield
- exploiting asymmetric advantage
- leveraging the civil sector’s massive R&D spend on autonomous systems
- accelerating capability development timelines.
Despite this potential, the ADF has largely adopted a gradual, incremental, almost ‘wait and see’, approach to autonomous weapons systems. Its autonomous systems ‘literacy’ is growing, and the ADF has started to bring some systems into service. Nevertheless, it has focused mainly on remotely operated systems, which tend to be at the lower end of the autonomy spectrum. And some of these systems simply replicate the exquisite capability/exquisite cost dilemma presented by manned systems and consequently can be acquired only in small numbers.
The key challenge facing the ADF is in generating trust in systems with higher levels of autonomy. Defence needs to do more to develop its people and its culture so that they’re more disposed to trust and therefore adopt autonomous systems rather than defaulting to manned platforms. Despite our cognitive biases towards manned systems, they can present more risk than autonomous systems, such as in the form of capability risk when we’re unwilling to deploy manned systems because of the threat to their crews. Defence also needs to invest substantially more in developing technologies that support autonomy—or adapting existing commercial technologies to the military environment—so its autonomous systems are more reliable and capable and therefore more trustworthy.