China is exporting unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to the Middle East which are capable of launching autonomous attacks.

China is exporting unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to the Middle East which are capable of launching autonomous attacks.

That’s according to the Pentagon’s top leader, US defense secretary Mark Esper, who gave a speech about artificial intelligence at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence public conference on 5 November.

Esper warns that the spread of Chinese UAVs is dangerous because the country has no military ethical guidelines to restrict the use of autonomy or AI in combat. He adds that the technology could be sold to autocratic governments and used to suppress their people.

China is developing autonomous UAVs as part of an effort to militarily surpass the USA and its allies, says Esper. AI could make autonomous UAVs cheaper and more lethal, he adds.

“Beijing has made it abundantly clear that it intends to be the world leader in AI by 2030,” he says. “While the US faces a mighty task in transitioning the world's most advanced military to new AI enabled systems, China believes it can leapfrog our current technology and go straight to the next generation.”

China has already started selling autonomous UAVs to foreign militaries, says Esper.

“As we speak the Chinese government is already exporting some of the most advanced military aerial drones to the Middle East, as it prepares to export its next generation stealth UAVs when those come online,” says Esper. “In addition, Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling drones advertised as capable for autonomy, including the ability to conduct lethal targeted strikes.”

It is not clear what UAV Esper is talking about, though media reports have highlighted the Ziyan Blowfish A2, a small helicopter UAV that its manufacturer claims can perform autonomous targeted strikes. The UAV can carry a 12kg (26.5lb) payload, such as an AK-47 automatic rifle or several mortar-sized munitions, and has been sold to the United Arab Emirates, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

Esper sought to differentiate the US military from China by saying Washington would develop a set of military ethics guidelines, while still seeking funds from the US Congress to advance the use of AI.

“We will harness the potential of AI to create a force fit for our time. We believe there's tremendous opportunity to enhance a wide range of the departments capabilities, from the back office to the front line,” he says. “And we will do this while being recognized as the world leader in military ethics, by developing principals for using AI in a lawful and ethical manner.”