In the midst of the conflict in Ukraine, the largest-ever testing ground for autonomous and uncrewed vehicles has emerged. The use of military robots is not a new concept, with remote-controlled war machines dating back to World War II. However, what we are now witnessing in Ukraine is the rise of a new generation of combat vehicles. The US has even deployed completely autonomous attack drones.
The use of “killer robot” technology by both sides in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine has sparked discussions in the international community. However, it’s important to note that the term “killer” does not accurately describe these machines, as they are not necessarily being employed for the purpose of killing.
This conflict marks the first time that contemporary unmanned vehicles and automated weapons systems have been used in a large-scale invasion involving forces with similar technology. Despite the apparent strength of Ukraine’s military on paper, both sides have deployed soldiers with comparable capabilities. The situation in Ukraine mirrors similar engagements faced by Russia in the Syrian civil war or by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is important to note that this conflict is not solely driven by machines. The current reliability and lack of experience with autonomous and unmanned weapons and vehicles mean they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the outcome of the war.
While uncrewed vehicles, or those that can operate without human involvement, are often autonomous, many can only be controlled remotely by humans. The fact that many of these vehicles have never been used in combat highlights their intended use as autonomous combat vehicles is less likely and instead, they will likely be utilized in support capacities.
The widespread use of “killer robots” to decimate human soldiers is unlikely to be seen in Ukraine or any other contemporary conflict. However, military officials are enthusiastic about the potential of AI to supplement current forces with unmanned ground vehicles or to replace crewed aerial and surface recon vehicles with robots. The conflict in Ukraine serves as a glimpse into the future of this technology.