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Putin Says Russia’s New Weapons Can’t Be Beat. With AI and Robotics, They Can.

Instead of single interceptors rising to meet an enemy missile, think about swarms of sub-launched UAVs armed with explosives, sensors, and brains.

Russia’s next generation of strategic weaponry may be a bit more distant and a bit less fearsome than Vladimir Putin recently claimed. But his March 1 speech about titanic ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones should spur American defense and technology communities to move faster — indeed, uncomfortably so — to embrace similarly disruptive ideas such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

America’s adversaries are betting that a new wave of weapons will negate technologies and tactics at the heart of U.S. military might, among them aircraft carriers and high-altitude missile defense. Russia’s newest weapons, Putin claimed, are “invincible against all existing and prospective missile defence and counter-air defence systems.” China’s defense investments follow a similar path, with an aggressive testing tempo for hypersonic weapons, unmanned aircraft, and advanced submarine detection, among other capabilities. Even if Putin’s coming arsenal doesn’t quite live up to its hype, the U.S. should nevertheless understand that America’s adversaries will soon field weapons like the ones he described — perhaps even before the Pentagon does.

There are, of course, conventional ways to respond to such threats, rooted in over 70 years of Western defense engineering and domestic and alliance politics. Yet these new Russian weapons are intended less to pulverize than to provoke. They are meant to draw a response that will further reinforce Putin’s narrative of an encircled nation threatened by NATO and U.S. missile defense systems.

To avoid this trap, then, the United States ought to seek unconventional responses. Some promising concepts are made possible by recent advances at the intersection of artificial intelligence and robotics.

One particularly dramatic moment during Putin’s speech featured an animation of a 200-ton Russian Sarmat ballistic missile releasing multiple warheads toward targets in Florida, purportedly enough to obliterate a region the size of France. The traditional approach to stopping such a country-killer is with a sea- or ground-based ballistic-missile defense system, the sort that are being deployed within the U.S. and in allied nations like Japan and Poland. But these defenses require feats of technical marvel to work correctly. Moreover, deploying them to allied bases can present domestic challenges, as in South Korea, and provoke Moscow or Beijing.

But now imagine that the apocalyptic Russian video of reentry vehicles streaming toward Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Palm Beach takes a different turn. The camera zooms to an unmanned submarine surfacing 10 miles to the east of Miami. Within moments of breaching the light blue Atlantic waters, the vessel’s clamshell deck doors spring open. Another dozen submarines positioned off the southern Florida coast emerge in similar fashion, and together they launch hundreds of quadcopter UAVs.

The electric-powered drones dash skyward, initially cued to the incoming Sarmat by thousands of U.S. Air Force wafersats. Within moments, each group has created an encrypted local network that replaces easy-to-jam GPS navigation signals with optical and self-referential inputs. A few moments more, and the swarms refine their plan of attack. One group over Tampa splits to join up with the swarm forming over Orlando, guided by a data packet from an F-35 out of Eglin Air Force Base.

This insight is crucial: The F-35 reports that the reentry vehicles are hypersonic Avangard models, now streaking earthward at Mach 20. The swarms quickly array themselves in aerial layers, deepening the defense. Drones carrying fragmentation explosives switch places with the thermobaric-armed UAVs, which sprint to an even higher altitude to meet the incoming warheads. Tens of thousands of feet below, the unmanned submarines are back underwater, their onboard neural networks reconfiguring the weapons payloads and form factors of the next wave of UAVs to better respond to more Sarmat missiles or another aerial threat.

This kind of land- or sea-based defensive mothership-swarm operational concept could be used against other aerial threats, such as the long-endurance nuclear-powered cruise missile Putin revealed, or underwater against the Status-6, a roving nuclear-armed torpedo-like drone designed to evade traditional anti-submarine defenses.

There are technical challenges, to be sure, such as power management or deploying a cheap-and-resilient global sensing network. But they are not insurmountable, nor is this kind of countermeasure hypothetical. In fact, SparkCognition began working on this very swarm-mothership concept a few years ago and has filed U.S. patents covering the design of such systems. Moreover, the same advances in machine-learning algorithms that make drone-launching robot submarines a reality can also create global data-gathering networks based on sensors that cost less than last year’s mobile phone.

AI and robotics — the very forces that are ushering in the era of “hyperwar,” as one of the authors and retired general John R. Allen call it — already allow U.S. asymmetric responses that are inexpensive, resilient and globally scalable. Ultimately, though, the biggest challenges with autonomy and robotics will not be technological. It will be our willingness to break with convention.