The idea of killer robots is terrible enough. But what happens when their cold lethality is added to the volatile political and religious mix of the Middle East? It's a massacre in the making.
The art of war is changing, fast. Hypersonic weapons can be upon you in less than a blink of an eye. Swarming drones can overwhelm any position like angry bees.
But even the most basic weaponry can become lethal when paired with the rapid-reaction and analysis times of artificial intelligence.
Humans don't stand a chance.
So when China starts selling AI-enhanced combat drones to the Middle East, it's likely to end up as a bloodbath.
"They would be impossible to defend yourself against. Once the shooting starts, every human on the battlefield will be dead," warns University of NSW Professor of Artificial Intelligence Toby Walsh.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper revealed recently China was selling drones programmed to decide for themselves who lives and who dies, without any form of human ethical oversight.
"As we speak, the Chinese government is already exporting some of its most advanced military aerial drones to the Middle East, as it prepares to export its next-generation stealth UAVs when those come online," Esper told the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence conference.
"In addition, Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling drones advertised as capable of full autonomy, including the ability to conduct lethal, targeted strikes."
It's a worst-case scenario.
For decades authors, academics, governments and militaries have been grappling with the implications of a fully autonomous battlefield.
Theory is about to be made reality on the battlefields of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
A state-controlled Chinese defence company is negotiating the sale of its Blowfish A3 armed helicopter drone, control equipment and fully autonomous software, to these troubled nations.
Beijing takes a blunt perspective: If the technology exists, it will be used for war. So it wants to be the first to perfect it.
"This isn't a surprise," says Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Dr Malcolm Davis. "Authoritarian adversaries do not need to conduct the same domestic debate on lethal autonomous weapons as western liberal democracies, because they are not answerable to their people.
"There is no 'ban killer robots' movement in China or Russia. The regimes are simply developing and deploying the weapons – and in this case – exporting them to similar regimes in the Middle East.
THOSE WHO KILL MONSTERS
Australia's Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) has been preparing to face killer robots for some time, physicist Tim Bussell told News Corp in September.
"The approach we take is very clear: We will not be deploying fully autonomous soldier robots on the battlefield. Unmanned weapons are not part of Australia's planned military capability," Mr Bussell said.
Autonomous vehicles with human fingers "on the trigger," however, are.
It's a stance reinforced lately when the US military detailed a code of ethics for Artificial Intelligence use. It also insists autonomous machines must remain governed by human controllers.
But, if China is indeed deploying fully independent AI killer robots, he warned Australia might have to review this stance.
"We would likely have to match capability with capability if needed to," Mr Bussell said. "We may have a lag to catch up, so it's important to have the technology in place and ready to respond.
Dr Davis agrees.
"While we will ensure our unmanned systems have humans 'on the loop' with political oversight into use, it is quite possible that our adversaries will equip with fully autonomous lethal systems," he said.
"That could give them an advantage in a future war."
Integrating ethical AI with Australia's armed forces is continuing at pace.
At the 2019 Avalon Air Show, the Royal Australian Air Force announced it had engaged Boeing Australia to fast-track a "Loyal Wingman" uncrewed air vehicle. It's smaller and cheaper than an F-35 Stealth Fighter. But the human sitting inside the F-35 would be in overall command, choosing and directing the killer robots assigned to their aircraft.
Similar developments are being made for the Australian Army.
BAE Australia has also demonstrated how two converted M113 armoured personnel carriers could operate – crewless – in support of troops on a future battlefield.
"Autonomous technologies will support soldier responsiveness in an accelerating warfare environment – increasing their ability to outpace, outmanoeuvre and out-think conventional and unconventional threats," a BAE press statement reads.
Australia's strategic thinkers are grappling with the implications of fast-changing military technology.
Drone swarms. Arsenal ships, submarines and aircraft. Loyal Wingmen.
These are just some of the terms rising to the top of the boiling debate.
Is the design of Australia's $50 billion future submarine fleet flexible enough for a war swarming with killer robot submersible and flying drones? Will the equipment being developed and purchased for our troops and pilots compete?
"Australia should consider asking the US to join its B-21 Raider Long Range Strike Bomber program, and look at investing in a strike version of Boeing's in-development Loyal Wingman drone" the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Dr Malcolm Davis told The Australian earlier this week.
Dr Davis argues that human-operated bombers, despite being a concept that dates back to World War I, will remain pivotal on future battlefields because of their long-range, heavy payloads – and flexible 'humans in the loop'.
"Unlike long-range missiles, bombers can be retargeted or recalled, carry a wide variety of munitions, and respond rapidly to a quickly developing tactical situation. For Australia – lacking a long-range strike capability – investment in bombers would have several advantages over long-range missiles."
And the idea of arsenal aircraft, he says, are complementary to long-range stealth bombers, not an alternative.
"The media imagery of these platforms emphasises drones that a small, short-range systems, being released by a platform like a C-130 Hercules over uncontested airspace (i.e. think 'war on terror' context, rather than 'war with China'). A C-130 won't survive in highly contested airspace such as that over the South China Sea," he says.
Which brings us back to bombers: These can enter defended airspace, and there they can control more capable autonomous vehicles such as the pending Loyal Wingman drone.
And the need may be more pressing than we realise.
"We can't assume that the F-35A is going to be effective right through its presumed life of time (into the 2040s according to the RAAF). It's a race – between our technology and systems vs their (China/Russia) ability to counter our advantage."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer for news.com.au | @JamieSeidel