European Defense: the impact of artificial intelligence on wars and the question of the right quantity of money to be spent on defense

There is a public expenditure that seems destined to experience significant growth, capable of challenging even the laws of public debt: military spending.

Article written by Francesco Grillo and Paola Bonomo for the Italian Newspaper Il Sole 24ore

There is a public expenditure that seems destined to experience significant growth, capable of challenging even the laws of public debt: military spending. In 2023, according to the PRIO think tank in Oslo, the world witnessed the highest number of conflicts and a record number of casualties (exceeding 300,000) since the end of World War II. What is even more concerning is that nuclear powers (United States, Russia, China) or potential ones (Israel, Iran) have never been so physically close to confrontation. However, is it truly just a matter of how much money we spend? The debate, in fact, overlooks a crucial factor: technology, which is completely changing the nature of warfare.

In the last televised debate before the 2012 elections, Republican candidate Romney challenged Obama on the decreasing number of U.S. ships compared to the 1950s. Obama, marking a decisive point in a memorable election campaign, responded sharply: 'You're right, Senator. Here's another piece of great news: today, the U.S. military has even fewer horses than it had during the Civil War. Yet, that hasn't stopped the United States from achieving a military advantage that has never been greater.' The paradox is explained by considering that a country's defense must be constantly reorganized, taking into account two factors: scientific progress, theoretically allowing an increase in strength while reducing costs, and the type of threats to be faced, which have been radically transformed by new enemies in the last twenty years.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine demonstrates how conflicts, even those closest to the traditional formula of interstate confrontation, are changing. Ukraine is experiencing a peculiar war: ancient in some aspects, more similar to the First than the Second World War as it has been entrenched for months, yet almost completely without the use of navy and air force, with a new protagonist – drones. Drones that serve as nodes, carriers of two communication networks clashing invisibly in the skies above eerie landscapes.

According to the English think tank RUSI, the Ukrainian army is losing ten thousand drones every month. In contrast, only thirty Soviet drones have been shot down since the beginning of 2023 (while 150 were lost in 2022), five of which were brought down by WAGNER brigades during their infamous mutiny. The war in Ukraine is now almost exclusively fought by unmanned aerial vehicles. They guide increasingly precise missiles and, in turn, are guided to their target by artificial intelligences learning about the enemy or toward self-destruction when intercepted by opposing hackers. Infantry plays a bloody but essentially passive role, merely advancing towards positions indicated by the networks. For Valery ZALUZHNJI, the commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, war is already entirely electronic.

There are three reasons why the wars of the future will increasingly be drone wars. Paradoxically, drones are less sophisticated in terms of research and cost less. With the cost of a single F15 (the supersonic fighter awaited by the Ukrainians from NATO for months, although it probably couldn't fly), you can buy enough drones to lose as many as Ukraine has lost in a year. They are much more useful because if war is fought on the quality and quantity of data, a small flying object capable of camouflaging itself and bypassing the front line provides more accurate images to locate the much more expensive enemy positions. Lastly, they are certainly less vulnerable than helicopters, which are large and slow (although irreplaceable for transporting troops in bomb-devastated terrain). The ones clashing in Ukraine are robots, and soon, submarines and tanks will also be unmanned. Perhaps even the infantry.

If war becomes electronic, it's not guaranteed that the balance of power will remain the same. Ukrainians primarily use drones from the Chinese company DJI, with revenues surpassing those of the other 19 largest producers combined. One of the most robust schools that has produced hackers capable of spectacular attacks on others' digital infrastructures is undoubtedly Russian. Terrorist groups (like Hamas) resort to drones to bring conflict to stronger opponents on different terrain. The United States and Israel still lead in digital technologies applied to defense, but there are competitors specializing in turning the complexity of their opponents' information systems to their advantage.

While it's true that in a more dangerous world, preparing for war makes sense to manage risks, Obama is right to demand intelligence when discussing serious matters. A debate entirely focused on how much we spend makes no practical sense. If European states want to continue having the strength to anticipate conflicts before being overwhelmed, they must share their military power (which was the prerogative defining states) and contracts to avoid unnecessary duplications. They also need to rethink defense, still designed for the last war that Europe experienced directly, now almost eighty years ago.


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