Published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) on February 14, 2022
Two titans from the Cold War era seem set to go another round, this time over the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which the United States calls a sovereign Ukrainian decision and Russia opposes vehemently. Whatever the outcome of the current standoff, another confrontation between the United States and Russia that merits closer attention is brewing — one that may fundamentally reshape the US-Russia security relationship in the not-so-distant future.
Both states are heavily committed to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in military systems and operations, including logistics, command and control, and intelligence collection and analysis, as well as to the development of more autonomous weapons. As tensions rise, these countries are likely to employ capabilities that are enhanced by AI and machine learning in cyberattacks and misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Rising political temperatures might well encourage fast-tracking of more autonomous military systems as each side seeks to gain the advantage.
The United States and Russia have already tested several autonomous systems. Russia has made important advances on autonomous tanks, while the United States has demonstrated a number of capabilities, including swarming munitions, which have the ability to destroy a surface vessel using a swarm of drones. At the moment, the United States is at the forefront of the development of autonomous systems and military AI applications. However, Russia has approached China to partner with it in building its AI readiness, and such a partnership could be a game changer.
One crucial concern is that the growing autonomy and use of AI in decision making in existing weapons platforms and in cyberspace will result in the deployment of immature systems; the result could be accidents that help to escalate conflict.
At the same time, both Russia and the United States have prevented progress on new international norms and agreements on the development and use of autonomous systems that could help to avoid dangerous situations. The United States and its allies are developing norms on responsible military uses of AI, but little dialogue with potential adversaries has taken place. And so, the competition between the great powers is allowed to grow unchecked.