22. Juni 2022

Why the war in Ukraine makes lethal autonomous weapon systems more likely

As new technologies emerge on the battlefield and international relations become more confrontative, four observations from the ongoing war in Ukraine indicate that the importance and application of autonomy in weapon systems will increase significantly in the near future.

A comment by Noah Heinemann


  1. Drones show their military potential

Soon after the invasion of Russian forces into Ukraine, a resistance song was published and became widely known on the internet: Drone-footage is shown in which missiles and bombs are raining down on Russian tanks from the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Bayraktar TB-2. The 6.5m long and 12m wide drone with a top speed of 220km/h has been in use for the Ukrainian military since 2019. The Turkish arms company “Baykar” has seen incredible success in the previous years due to their export hit Bayraktar-UAV – 16 countries are reported to have ordered the drone already, including Poland in 2021 as the first NATO-member.

The Bayraktar TB-2 is an important asset of Ukrainian military operations against the initial Russian superiority in terms of armoured vehicles, artillery and anti-air-systems. Looking at the assumed costs of a few million Dollars per drone, the Bayraktar is particularly cheap in comparison to other available UAVs – rendering the system an appealing purchase for militaries around the world. Although official reports are rare about the specific impact of the TB2 in Ukraine, observations indicate that the drone proved successful in destroying multiple Russian armoured targets. Recently, reports emerged that the U.S. is even planning to send four General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs, the upgraded successor of the widely-known MQ-1 Predator, to Ukraine, which can be equipped with the advanced AGM-114 Hellfire-missiles and therefore represents a more valuable and more capable category of UAVs deployed on the battlefield.

So far, the anti-air-defence-systems have had some trouble with defending against the UAVs, giving the Ukrainian military the opportunity to continuously contest Russian air superiority. Additionally, the TB-2 possibly had a big impact in the sinking of the Russian Black Sea flagship and guided missile cruiser “Moskva” on 14 April  2022, by distracting the ships anti-air-systems and making the disastrous strike via R-360 Neptune anti-ship-missiles possible. To that effect, UAVs have presented their military capabilities for modern warfare once again like in previous conflicts in Libya, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh or Ethiopia. 

Therefore, UAVs demonstrate a valuable weapon system, whose utility could be increased by the introduction of further autonomous capabilities and an extensive delegation of control to AI. In comparison, there are no particular ground vehicles or maritime vessels which have proven as advantageous, and whose military capabilities could be enhanced as effectively via AI. The more UAVs prove to be effective and valuable in modern warfare, the higher the interest of militaries to upgrade their operational power via autonomous systems is expected to rise.


  1. Proliferation and military capability improvement of loitering munition

Beginning in April the U.S. have reportedly sent about 100 “Switchblade”-drones to Ukraine as military assistance. These drones can fit into a backpack with their weight of just 2.5kg and are able to fly for 10 minutes and 15km, once they are up in the sky within a short starting time. The SwitchBlade is equipped with video cameras, allowing the operating soldier to identify possible targets before destroying them by firing the drone and its attached explosives in “Kamikaze”-style onto the target. Thereby the drones are “loitering munitions,” because they can stay in the sky independently and “loiter” in an autonomous way before attacking.

In this case, the mix of a drone and rocket needs to be labelled as a semi-autonomous weapon if the final decision of firing it onto the target lies within the action and responsibility of the operating soldiers – when they are still “in the loop” of the final decision making. If the only task is to start the drone in intense combat situations and thereby authorising the drone to independently search for and destroy opposing targets, a fully autonomous weapon system would be in use. 

In March, reports have appeared that Russia may have used such a system in Ukraine, the Kalashnikov ZALA Aero KUB-BLA. Thereby, a prominent challenge of identifying UAVs and their autonomous capabilities via hardware becomes obvious: The operational mode of the UAV cannot be simply identified from the outside and reliable verification stays complex.

On the Ukrainian side, the mentioned “SwitchBlade 300”-UAV can be labelled as a semi-autonomous weapon system and is expected to prove effective against infantry and light-armoured vehicles by the mobile Ukrainian Infantry squads. These wreaked havoc for Russian battle tanks already with their use of mobile Javelin anti-tank-rockets. Additionally, the U.S. even designed a new weapon system specifically for the requirements of the Ukrainian military: The Pentagon shaped the development process of the “Phoenix Ghost”-loitering munition, which was planned previous to the invasion, but now got adapted. The U.S. announced to “continue to move that development in ways that are attuned to Ukrainian requirements for unmanned aerial systems of a tactical nature in eastern Ukraine,” as Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby stated. 

But needless to say, Ukraine and the US do not have the technological monopoly on these military systems: Russia seems to be using loitering munitions as well, like the mentioned KUB-BLA drone but also multiple low-budget UAV-variations. With the current limitations to Russian military capabilities and adapted invasion plans due to intelligence misjudgement, over-extended supply lines or psychological considerations, the use of loitering munitions and thereby (semi-)autonomous weapon systems is expected to increase – further advancing the proliferation of these systems.


  1. Military disadvantages on Russian side through demotivated soldiers and logistical problems

Since February, the Russian military has revealed multiple weaknesses and problems, especially while advancing towards Kyiv in the first phase of the Russian war of aggression. Experts have identified issues in coordination and logistics, supply as well as morale, leading to diminished capabilities of the previously highly appraised Russian military. After initial mistakes in intelligence and strategic planning, these factors now decrease the capabilities of the attackers to advance against highly determined Ukrainians who are defending their homeland.

The prospective lessons learned by Russian military advisors are likely to increase their interest in autonomous capabilities: For organisation and coordination, using algorithms to collect, screen and analyse military surveillance data, manage logistical supply lines or select strategic targets could assist tremendously and free up personnel. Additionally, logistics could be organised in a much more efficient way by calculation in the first place, but also by using unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) with (semi-)autonomous capabilities for delivering the supplies or securing supply lines with the Russian Uran-9 UGV for example – a task that is taking up a lot of manpower the more supply lines expand.

Thus, autonomous weapon systems on UGV- or UAV-platforms do not need as much supply as human soldiers do – instead of food, shelter and rest, these systems need fuel, ammunition and maintenance, which are easier to organise and supply. The autonomous systems also possess another military advantage of not being human: While the morale of Russian soldiers seems to break down due to various reasons like poor supply and false pretences for their deployment, autonomous weapon systems would maintain their military effectiveness and manageability independently from the given physical and psychological circumstances.

Therefore, diminishing the role and factor of human beings further in future military affairs could clear out a range of present tactical challenges military advisors observe. This development even seems inevitable in the middle- and long-term future, culminating in the extensive integration of AI in information warfare, military strategy planning or even in weapon systems on the ground and in the air.


  1. Once deployed, LAWS create strong reinforcing dynamics

On a more technical side, the deployment of autonomous weapon systems will create strong reinforcing dynamics, which induce a (particular) necessity for using AI in order to make defence possible. If the advantage of weapon systems does not lie in their fire power, range or stealth capabilities anymore but in their advantageous speed of decision making in nanoseconds, operating against these weapons with human capabilities and detrimental responsiveness seems rather desperate. Therefore, the most effective defence against systems capable of warfare at machine speed appears to be developing military systems which can compete by using AI coevally – so fighting fire with fire, autonomy with autonomy.

This opens a reinforcing cycle of researching for even quicker weapon systems, enabled by more capable algorithms and the increasing delegation of control from humans to machines. Here, an important dimension of arms races will become manifest in itself: To defend against new emerging technologies and systems like loitering munitions and other UAVs with autonomous capabilities, new defensive and AI-powered mechanisms need to be developed to compete with the increased operational speed. But improving defensive capabilities possibly results in upgrades of offensive power vice versa to keep the advantage in military combat. 

Therefore, the arms race is likely to spiral up in the form of the further delegation of autonomy to weapon systems and algorithms: The more an adversary relies on AI, the more a defender possibly needs to follow – so the faster systems need to become in general. Not doing so and refraining from using AI for countering and defending against LAWS would be equivalent to consciously keeping an avoidable and highly vulnerable soft spot. Therefore, even militarily-cautious and risk-sensitive states could be urged to deploy autonomous systems (defensively) if their adversaries decide to do so primarily.


LAWS are becoming more likely – and are here to stay

With the deployment and proliferation of loitering munitions, UAVs and (fully) autonomous weapon systems in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the threshold for starting the rat race for AI-warfare gets lowered immensely or set the ball rolling already. Due to the ongoing war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine, (fully) autonomous weapon systems become more likely, because…

  • … military vehicles and platforms, especially UAVs like the Bayraktar TB-2, demonstrate their military potential and thereby possible point of contact for AI-integration.
  • … the widespread deployment of loitering munitions increase their proliferation, reinforce the value of AI-enabled weapons and indicate current vulnerabilities in air defence.
  • … problems in the Russian military operations in Ukraine result from inefficient planning, insufficient manpower and low morale of soldiers, scaling up the interest of further integrating AI and LAWS to counterbalance human shortcomings.
  • … the deployment of autonomous weapon systems creates reinforcing dynamics with the included imperative to “fight fire with fire” for developing defensive mechanisms.

LAWS present enormous risks for international security, humanitarian law and human dignity, but due to their reinforcing dynamics, once these systems are deployed, they are here to stay. The ongoing war in Ukraine will speed up this process significantly.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via unsplash 


Noah is one of three newly elected programme leaders for European Security and Defence Policy at Polis180. Currently he is interning in various security-related positions in Berlin before completing his B.A. in Political Science and Economics at Heidelberg University.


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