General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the Defence Staff,
Thirty thousand “robot soldiers” could form an integral part of the British army in the 2030s, working alongside humans in and around the frontline, the head of the armed forces said in a television interview on Sunday.
Gen Sir Nick Carter said the armed forces needed “to think about how we measure effects in a different way” – and he called on the government to proceed with the previously promised five-year integrated defence review.
Speaking to Sky News on the morning of Remembrance Sunday, the chief of the defence staff suggested that “an armed forces that’s designed for the 2030s” could include large numbers of autonomous or remotely controlled machines.
“I mean, I suspect we could have an army of 120,000, of which 30,000 might be robots, who knows?” Carter said, although he stressed he was not setting any particular target in terms of future numbers.
Investment in robot warfare was to be at the heart of the planned integrated five-year defence review, whose future was thrown into doubt after the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, postponed the cross-government spending review to which it had been linked last month.
Carter said negotiations with Downing Street and the Treasury about salvaging the multi-year defence funding settlement were “going on in a very constructive way” – as he lobbied in public for a long-term financial deal.
“Clearly, from our perspective, we are going to argue for something like that [a multi-year budget] because we need long-term investment because long-term investment gives us the opportunity to have confidence in modernisation,” the general said.
The army has also struggled with recruitment for several years, with the current trained strength at 73,870, well below the nominal 82,050 target. The target had been expected to be cut further to 75,000 in the integrated review, with technology being used to plug some of the gaps.
All Britain’s armed forces have been engaged in a string of research projects involving small drones or remotely powered land or underwater vehicles, some of which are armed and others for reconnaissance.
The MoD says its policy is that only humans will be able to fire weapons, although there is growing concern about the potential danger of unrestricted robot warfare, led by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
Technology under development includes the i9 drone, which is powered by six rotors and carries two shotguns. Remotely operated, it is intended to be used to storm buildings, typically an urban warfare situation that generates some of the highest casualties.
Carter also warned there remained a risk that the UK could be dragged into a deadly future war if “escalation led to miscalculation” in an existing regional conflict, as he argued that the world was “a very uncertain and anxious place”.
“We have to remember that history might not repeat itself but it has a rhythm and if you look back at the last century, before both world wars, I think it was unarguable that there was escalation which led to the miscalculation which ultimately led to war at a scale we would hopefully never see again,” the general said.
When pressed if he was predicting there could be another major world conflict, Carter said “I’m saying it’s a risk and we need to be conscious of those risks.”