The United States recently sent two aircraft carrier strike groups into the South China Sea in a show of military strength. The move of multiple American warships is in reaction to China holding military exercises in international waters that are contested by Vietnam and the Philippines. The stand-off raises global tensions at a time when each superpower has developed advanced technological capabilities in terms of artificial intelligence, remote imaging, and autonomous weapons systems. It is important officials in each nation understand how emerging technologies speed up decision-making but through crisis acceleration run the risk of dangerous miscalculation.
Harkening back to Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz's famous work "On War," military doctrine the world over has been rooted in an understanding of the ever-changing character of war, the ways in which war manifests in the real world, and the never-changing nature of war, those abstractions that differentiate war from other acts — namely its violent, political, and interactive elements. Military scholars and decision makers alike have discussed and debated these definitions time and time again, with the character of war often being defined by the technologies of the day, and the nature of war being articulated as the human element of armed conflict.
With the advent of AI and other emerging technologies, though, these time-honored definitions are likely to change. At a fundamental level, battle, war, and conflict are time-competitive processes. From time immemorial, humans have sought to be faster in the ultimate competition of combat, in an absolute as well as in a relative sense. And in that regard, AI will dramatically change the speed of war. It will not only enhance the human role in conflict, but will also leverage technology as never before. For not only is technology changing, the rate of that alteration is accelerating.
This is the central issue before us for armed conflict, and the side that can create, master, and leverage an equilibrium between the nature of war and the character of war, especially within the new environment of AI, data analytics, and supercomputing, will inevitably prevail in conflict. In a geopolitical environment increasingly defined by new and emerging technologies, national defense stands as one of the most consequential areas of development for the 21st century. It is important to assess the revolutionary impacts of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies on nearly every facet of national security and armed conflict, including the accelerated pace of warfare and the critical role of continued human control.
Ultimately, there are significant opportunities to deploy AI-based tools, as well as major rising threats that need to be considered and addressed. A variety of technologies can improve decision-making, speed, and scalability — some to a dizzying degree. But, as with so many other AI applications, policy and operational shifts are necessary to facilitate the proper integration and innovation of these emerging technologies and make sure they strengthen, not weaken, leadership capacity, general readiness, and performance in the field.
Throughout human history, militaries have operated as the most overt political tool available to governments and society. Clausewitz himself famously wrote, "War is a continuation of politics by other means." And while modern security forces play a variety of interchangeable roles (peacekeeping, stabilization, and national defense), they invariably represent the threat of violence — the "mailed fist" purpose-built to ensure a particular outcome.
With this as context, it is no surprise that the ability to assure outcomes and plan for all contingencies, violent or otherwise, takes up a significant portion of military leadership and military strategists' time and energy. Here, through anything from predictive analytics to lightning-fast target acquisition, AI, once fully realized, has the potential to be one of the single greatest force multiplier for military and security forces in human history.
Indeed, as noted in a Congressional Research Service report: "AI has the potential to impart a number of advantages in the military context, [though] it may also introduce distinct challenges. AI technology could, for example, facilitate autonomous operations, lead to faster, more informed military decision-making, and increase the speed and scale of military action. However, it may also be unpredictable or vulnerable to unique forms of manipulations."
The interim report of the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence warns that:
"How the United States adopts AI will have profound ramifications for our immediate security, economic well-being, and position in the world. Developments in AI cannot be separated from the emerging strategic competition with China and developments in the broader geopolitical landscape. We are concerned that America's role as the world's leading innovator is threatened. We are concerned that strategic competitors and non-state actors will employ AI to threaten Americans, our allies, and our values. We know strategic competitors are investing in research and application. It is only reasonable to conclude that AI-enabled capabilities could be used to threaten our critical infrastructure, amplify disinformation, and wage war."
AI's role in the military and on the battlefield is thus one of catalytic power, both for good and ill. Yet, the strength of AI does not manifest in the way a bomb or new weapons platform might perform or act. Its utility is much broader. As noted by Brookings Institution scholar Chris Meserole, AI is being deployed in myriad ways by the American military: "Rather than constituting a single weapon system itself, AI is instead being built into a wide variety of weapons systems and core infrastructure. Tanks, artillery, aircraft, submarines—versions of each can already detect objects and targets on their own and maneuver accordingly."
This dynamic becomes particularly clear within the context of the spectrum of conflict modern militaries deal with today, notably hybrid conflict. Looking ahead, it will also define warfare of the future, namely through what John Allen and Amir Husain have coined as "hyperwar." The distinctions between hybrid warfare and hyperwar are important. As noted in a recent NATO report: "Hybrid threats combine military and non-military as well as covert and overt means, including disinformation, cyber attacks, economic pressure, deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces. Hybrid methods are used to blur the lines between war and peace, and attempt to sow doubt in the minds of target populations."
In this environment, AI can super-charge an adversary's ability to sow chaos in the battlespace and incorporate deception and surprise into their tactics in new and novel ways. By contrast, hyperwar may be defined as a type of conflict where human decision-making is almost entirely absent from the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop, a popular framework developed by U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd for training individuals to make time-sensitive decisions as quickly as possible, especially when there is limited time to gather information. As a consequence, the time associated with an OODA cycle will be reduced to near-instantaneous responses.
The implications of these developments are many and game changing, ranging across the spectrum from advanced technological modernization to how leaders in the era of hyperwar are recruited, educated and trained. The topics of speed, efficiency, and accuracy as well as the necessity for human control of AI-powered military capabilities represent the heart of the issue in the current AI-national security debate.
With U.S. and Chinese forces maneuvering in the relatively tight operational environment of the South China Sea, reaction times are already short. As more sophisticated AI eventually enables faster and more comprehensive intelligence collection and analysis, rapid decision support, and even wide area target acquisition, we could see a premium being placed on "going first" and not risk being caught flat-footed. While AI has the capacity to magnify military capabilities and accelerate the speed of conflict, it can also be inherently destabilizing.
Now is the time for the U.S. and China to have the hard conversations about norms of behavior in an AI enabled, hyperwar environment. With both sides moving rapidly to field arsenals of hypersonic weapons, action and reaction times will become shorter and shorter and the growing imbalance of the character and nature of war will create strong incentives, in moments of intense crisis, for conflict not peace. This is foreseeable now, and demands the engagement of both powers to understand, seek, and preserve the equilibrium that can prevent the sort of miscalculation and high-speed escalation to the catastrophe that none of us wants.
—By John R. Allen, a retired four-star military general and Brookings Institution president, and Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at Brookings. This article is excerpted from their forthcoming Turning Point: Policymaking in the Era of Artificial Intelligence.