US-China competition to field military drone swarms could fuel global arms race

By FRANK BAJAK
April 12, 2024

As their rivalry intensifies, U.S. and Chinese military planners are gearing up for a new kind of warfare in which squadrons of air and sea drones equipped with artificial intelligence work together like a swarm of bees to overwhelm an enemy.

The world’s only AI superpowers are engaged in an arms race for swarming drones that is reminiscent of the Cold War, except drone technology will be far more difficult to contain than nuclear weapons. Because software drives the drones’ swarming abilities, it could be relatively easy and cheap for smaller powers and rogue actors alike to acquire their own fleets of killer robots.

In this photo from the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, British soldiers launch a drone during Project Convergence exercises at Fort Irwin, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2022. With tensions high over Taiwan, U.S. and Chinese military planners are readying themselves for a new kind of war where battleships, fighter jets and amphibious landings cede prevalence to squadrons of AI-enabled air and sea drones. (DVIDS via AP)

The unchecked spread of swarm technology “could lead to more instability and conflict around the world,” said Margarita Konaev, an analyst with Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

As the undisputed leaders in the field, Washington and Beijing are best equipped to set an example by putting limits on military uses of drone swarms. But their intense competition, China’s military aggression in the South China Sea and persistent tensions over Taiwan make the prospect of cooperation look dim.

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