Robots could be swelling the ranks of the British Army within a matter of years, a senior military official has claimed.
In an interview with Sky News, General Sir Nick Carter offered a futuristic vision of the British military which could see robotics playing a key role in general operations.
The army already utilises drones and other robotic vehicles, but Carter said the army must consider “how we measure effects in a different way” and suggesting that this new digital army could comprise 120,000 soldiers – 30,000 of which will be be robots.
There are concerns, Carter says, that smaller conflicts could escalate into larger conflicts, risking a new world war. Using robots across military roles could potentially save thousands of lives.
“If you look back at the last century, before both world wars, I think it was unarguable that there was an escalation, which led to miscalculation and ultimately led to war at a scale we would, hopefully, never see again,” Carter said.
Carter said that the possibility of a new world war “is a risk” and that the UK Government and the British Army “need to be conscious of those risks”.
He called on the government to proceed with its planned five-year defence review, which is currently exploring investment in military robotics.
The investment was to be at the heart of the government’s cross-government spending, which was postponed by chancellor Rishi Sunak following a second spike in coronavirus cases across the country.
In 2019, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the commitment of £66 million from the government’s Transformation Fund to “fast-track military robotic projects”.
Commenting on that funding boost, Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, Chief of the General Staff, said at the time: “Rapid adaptation is an essential ingredient for success on the battlefield.
“The fielding of the next generation of armoured fighting vehicles and ground-breaking robotic and autonomous systems will keep the British Army at the cutting edge of battlefield technology, improving our lethality, survivability and competitive advantage.”
However, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has also slowed investment and the economic crisis combined with the pandemic could increase security threats, Carter warned.
“We are living at a moment in time where the world is a very uncertain and anxious place,” he said. “I think the real risk we have, with quite a lot of regional conflicts that are going on at the moment, is you could see escalation lead to miscalculation and that is a thing I think we have to guard against.”
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Robotics is already being used across a wide spectrum of sectors worldwide. NASA has employed robots in several of their rocket launches, including the Mars Perseverance Rover.
In 2018, the US Army announced the development of small drones that can be powered by lasers in mid-air. The laser technology would charge the battery from the ground, allowing the drone to fly indefinitely.
However, in August there were calls for a universal ban on ‘killer robots’ after a Human Rights Watch report suggested that retaining “meaningful human control” over autonomous weapons systems is an ethical imperative and a moral obligation.
The report showed that 30 countries have expressed a desire for the establishment of an international treaty, while a number of policymakers, AI experts, private companies and worldwide organisations have also endorsed calls to ban autonomous weapons systems.