- The U.S. Air Force has proposed a multi-billion dollar budget to develop 1,000 to 2,000 AI-driven XQ-58A Valkyrie drones designed for high-risk combat scenarios, with each unit costing between $3 million and $25 million.
- Despite the budget-friendly nature of these drones compared to manned fighter jets, the program has sparked ethical debates, with human rights organizations warning against “outsourcing killing to machines.”
- United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and others have expressed concerns over the moral and political implications of autonomous lethal weaponry, advocating for international prohibition.
In a bid to accelerate the next frontier of aerial combat, the U.S. Air Force has submitted a financial proposal asking for a staggering sum of multiple billions. The investment aims to manufacture a fleet of 1,000 to 2,000 AI-driven unmanned aerial vehicles.
XQ-58A Valkyrie could transform aerial combat strategies
Designed to function as automated co-pilots, these XQ-58A Valkyrie drones are engineered to perform high-risk maneuvers in battle conditions too dangerous for human pilots. According to The New York Times, these robotic aviators are particularly suited for missions where human survival is improbable.
A milestone test later in the year will examine the drone’s capability to autonomously identify and neutralize a target in the Gulf of Mexico, laying out its own tactical approach to the mission, says the Times. The Valkyrie is already turning heads with its impressive specs; it can sustain speeds of up to 550 mph and fly at an altitude of 45,000 feet. It boasts a range of 3,000 nautical miles, according to Insider. In contrast, its predecessor, the XB-70 Valkyrie, which took its maiden flight in 1964, requires human pilots and was produced in limited numbers.
Pending Congressional approval, the budget for this high-stakes initiative sits at an estimated $5.8 billion over a five-year span. This ambitious monetary request follows years of experimental flights. During these tests, the drone acted as a data link between advanced fighter jets like the F-22s and F-35s and was also integrated with the Air Force’s Skyborg initiative. Skyborg is a specialized AI system devised to govern unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Valkyrie.
The financial outlook for each XQ-58A Valkyrie drone is set between $3 million and $25 million per unit, according to The New York Times. This is a fraction of the cost of traditional manned fighter jets, offering a budget-friendly alternative for the military. However, representatives from the Air Force and the Department of Defense have not yet offered any comments, despite Insider reaching out for statements.
The ethical aspect
Despite the fiscal advantages and support from military circles for the Air Force’s “Next Generation of Air Dominance” program, the development of these unmanned combatants is igniting ethical debates. Critics, including human rights organizations, fear that these AI-driven mechanisms may usher in a dystopian future reminiscent of the “Terminator” movies.
Mary Wareham, the Advocacy Director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch, issued a stark warning in conversation with The New York Times. She said, “You’re stepping over a moral line by outsourcing killing to machines — by allowing computer sensors rather than humans to take human life.”
Similar concerns come from other quarters opposed to AI in warfare. The nonprofit Future of Life Institute has coined the term “slaughterbots” to describe such autonomous combat machines. Their argument revolves around the premise that algorithms can make rapid decisions that not only hasten the pace of conflict but also make it more unpredictable, potentially escalating to the level of weapons of mass destruction.
The debate over the ethical implications of AI-powered weaponry isn’t new. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his reservations as early as 2019. He unambiguously declared that “machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law.”
Featured image credit: Kerem Gülen/Midjourney