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05 Dec 2022

Ambitious plans for Artificial Intelligence in Defence

Ambitious plans for Artificial Intelligence in Defence
Image Source: MOD Science and Technology Portfolio Policy Paper.

The ascendency of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is sparking strategies, adoption, and creation of regulation which are propelling its use in defence. The UK MOD’s Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy promises the use of AI will be ambitious, sustainable and responsible, while there are many applications already exploiting the advantages AI has to offer.


What can AI do for defence?

AI is set to transform the productivity and GDP potential of the global economy and with its increasingly sophisticated learning abilities, will bring $15.7 trillion (14% growth) to the global economy by 2030, according to PWC’s “Sizing the prize” paper. Research from the UK Government suggests that more than 1.3 million UK businesses will use AI by 2040 and spending on AI is expected to reach more than £200 billion by the same date.

The MOD’s Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy (DAIS) suggests that the Russia-Ukraine war has accelerated the need to continue exploiting innovative concepts and cutting edge technological advances and AI is at the forefront of such advances. As a result, AI is one of 25 technology programmes which are earmarked for a total of £6.6 billion in R&D investment over the next four years.

As part of the DAIS, the MOD is envisioning:

  • Portable command and control devices analysing and recommending different courses of action – fed images and data from databases, drones and satellites
  • Autonomous resupply systems and vehicles – taking the risk out of manual resupply tasks and saving personnel valuable time on the battlefield
  • Directed energy weapons, utilising superfast detection systems to destroy targets in a fraction of the usual time - using target detection algorithms to defend allied ships or positions
  • AI cyber defence systems - capable of high-speed detection of threats and breaches

Such broad utilisation of AI is expected to save time, cut risks to front-line users and contribute meaningfully to the energy-dense, data-heavy battlefield of tomorrow. In short, AI will make the battlefield of tomorrow smarter, faster and more autonomous.


How has AI already been used?

In 2021, the Royal Navy participated in a NATO exercise where AI was utilised on-board ship for the first time, with aid from Dstl and industry, a Type 45 Destroyer and a Type 23 Frigate benefitted from the latest AI tech in their command centres. The test of AI in this scenario involved a supersonic missile threat, requiring a rapid threat assessment and recommended actions to be taken by crew.

Also in 2021, the British Army utilised AI during Exercise Spring Storm (Estonia), to provide environmental and terrain support, via automated smart analytics which cut through vast amounts of data. This form of AI was developed with Army training in mind, to seamlessly support integration to the battlefield environment. The Army went on to test AI tech with Adarga at the start of 2022 to supercharge the rapid development of key military digital tools fit for the new information age.

In an MOD Corporate report titled “The Science Inside 2022”, published this November, AI is said to be already changing the battlefield, with the potential to make radical technical enhancements. The report breaks down the advantages of AI as:

  • Machine scale analysis – removing the constraints of human-centric approaches to data analyses
  • Machine speed analysis – outpacing adversaries with faster decision-making in different environments
  • Fighting the information war – counteracting fake news by detecting and defeating conventional and algorithmically generated misinformation in real time
  • Increasing everyone’s impact – by enabling each human operator to safely control multiple autonomous platforms


Ambitious AI

UK MOD’s Defence in a competitive age paper predicted that ‘future conflicts may be won or lost on the speed and efficacy of the AI solutions employed’. Such a future would require the MOD and its counterparts to be at the forefront of AI innovations to maintain operational superiority in the field.

Defence Engage member Varjo has been working with Bohemia Interactive Simulations (recently acquired by BAE) to pioneer AI developments for the Finnish Air Force. Their mixed reality technology provides a ‘Live-Virtual-Constructive’ (LVC) training solution, which can augment live exercises allowing customers to replicate training scenarios, repeat them or modify them with ease. Another scenario-playing company is Improbable Defence, a gaming technology providing war-gaming to defence. In its risk-free simulated environments clients can play out military scenarios, investigating how factors like troop morale and ammunition supplies affect the probability of a successful operation. Lumination claim their methods are four times more effective than traditional teaching methods, turning passive learning into active, immersive experiences using AI, VR & AR techniques for training and simulation.

ARLS (now Heruon) addresses security concerns by combining Augmented Reality (AR) solutions with AI. Clients including the UK Home office are using the technology to identify and monitor persons of interest in a legally compliant and ethical fashion, and so protecting lives and property.

Advanced Navigation's advanced navigation solutions are driven by AI solutions which rely less on traditional satellite navigation and more on precise AI and machine learning capabilities. They have developed their industry-leading navigation systems and robotics technologies for multiple domains, including air, land, sea, and space. The company is based in Australia and has worked with NASA, Lockheed, Tesla and other industry titans to implement their innovative AI-led solutions.

AI-aided analysis is the specialty of Rebellion Defence who has been spearheading their mission-focused, multi-domain AI solutions to provide comprehensive battlespace awareness and even ‘autonomous mission execution’. One area Rebellion has focussed on is the analysis of video filmed via drone, with clients including the US Navy and UK MOD.

These are all Defence Engage members, widely recognised as industry-leaders driving the AI battlefield revolution.


AI assisted sustainability

AI is also a leading capability in creating sustainability. In November 2022, the UK Government launched an initiative to cut carbon emissions with a £1.5 million AI programme. This is born from the 2021 National AI Strategy and helps fulfil the goals of the Net Zero Innovation Portfolio. The programme is intended to create high-skilled jobs, kick-start investment in a growing industry, save on energy costs and ultimately support a more sustainable future, according to Science Minister George Freeman. Projects specifically encouraged to bid for funding include uses of AI which could enable a faster transition to renewable energy, decarbonise industry by improving energy productivity and fuel switching, and decrease emissions in the agricultural sector. The programme opened for applications on 22 November 2022, and closes on 19 January 2022. Applications can be made through the AI for Decarbonisation funding page.

When it comes to decarbonising defence, the MOD and Dstl have been mobilising a variety of initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint of the forces. See our recent article for the frameworks developed to do this and bright lights of industry driving the change: Defence rises to answer sustainability challenge.

Advanced Navigation (another member of Defence Engage) seeks to exploit the abilities of ‘artificial neural networks’, which represent world-leading machine-learning AI solutions. As a global exporter, Advanced Navigation’s AI systems help maintain their 100% carbon neutral exports in an effort to promote the widespread adoption of this technology to create better, more responsive, responsible, and sustainable products.

Alongside the developments of industry, researchers have found that AI solutions can improve water filtration. Their application of AI could see a reduction in contaminants thanks to advanced filtration algorithms and machine learning to produce better results. Such innovative tech could benefit soldiers on operations where water quality may have been compromised.


Responsible use of AI

AI offers many advantages but also presents ethical challenges, many of which are heightened when applied to the high stakes defence context. These include, but are not limited to: the relative unpredictability of AI, responsibility gaps when delegating to autonomous systems, and potential reductions of human control. There is also a concern that AI could enable weapons to operate with no human involvement.

Given the potential risks associated with the use of AI in defence, it’s essential that it is developed and used responsibly. In adherence with UK, UN and international laws, there must be effective, ethically-considerate governance of AI technology. This part of the MOD’s AI strategy maintains that whilst the development and implementation of AI has broad potential, it must have effective oversight. For example, the MOD has stated that: “we do not rule out incorporating AI within weapon systems”, however it is “very clear that there must be context-appropriate human involvement in weapons which identify, select and attack targets.”

The strategy is intended to make the MOD the world’s most effective, efficient, trusted and influential defence organisation of its size in the AI field. The formation of the AI Data Centre came a month after the publication of the MOD’s Science and Technology Portfolio which declared the MOD’s vision to ‘exploit emerging AI technologies to drive solutions to defence’s key challenges’. Furthermore, the UK is at the forefront of an initiative to shape global regulatory and oversight standards for AI. The Alan Turing Institute and the National Physical Laboratory are together piloting this approach in an effort to increase the contribution of the UK to the development of global AI technical standards.


The use of data-driven technologies in defence can facilitate better decision-making at pace, enhance the organisation of large and complex operations, and enable humans to be removed from dangerous roles through autonomy. AI is at the forefront of these technologies, in addition to reducing risk and improving capabilities it shows promise in reducing carbon emissions and increasing sustainability. SMEs and researchers are leading the nimble development and exploitation of AI in a trend that is set to continue.


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