Naval missile systems and the limits of artificial intelligence

The new buzzword in militaries across the world today is ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI) — the ability for combat platforms to self-control, self-regulate and self-actuate, using inherent computing and decision-making capabilities. That advanced computing technologies today enable autonomous systems to identify and strike hostile targets is no surprise. What is new is that a fast deteriorating security environment in the maritime commons has led to a growing interest in ‘intelligent’ naval missiles that promises to revolutionise future maritime combat.

While advancements in remotely operated weapons like drones have been driving superior AI technology, there are, however, complex questions that remain unanswered. Many of them have to do with the logic of AI in defence systems. What, for instance, is the real incentive for military commanders to encourage the development and deployment of autonomous weapons? Is the case for divesting human executive control over weapons systems fundamentally self-defeating? Does the growing deployment of anti-access/area denial weapons justify AI enabled systems in littorals spaces? Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, in the face of electronic/cyber capability advancements, is the use of autonomous weapons at sea an unavoidable reality?

A good point of departure for the discussion on autonomous combat systems is a recent report in the Chinese media about the development of a family of cruise missiles with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. In August this year, a Chinese daily reported that China’s aerospace industry was developing tactical missiles with inbuilt intelligence that would help seek out targets in combat. The ‘plug and play’ approach, a Chinese aerospace executive pointed out, could potentially enable China’s military commanders to launch missiles tailor made for specific combat conditions.

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Amit Singh

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