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NATO allies warn drone advances to force strategic rethink

PICTURED ABOVE: A woman with flowers stands by the house of Olha and Hryhorii Putiatin and their three children who died in the fire caused by the Russian drone attack on the oil depot at night on Feb. 10 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.  (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform via ZUMA Press Wire/TNS)
By Agatha Cantrill Bloomberg News

Advances in drone warfare have helped Ukraine partly neutralize Russia’s military advantage two years into the Kremlin-ordered invasion.

The relatively inexpensive drones have allowed Kyiv’s forces to strike back, sometimes hitting targets inside Russia hundreds of miles from the border. Yet North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials at the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend said the advances also come with risks.

Officials at the event, a gathering of world leaders, military personnel and international security advisers, warned it would become harder for NATO to establish control over air space in conflict zones because of the technology. The proliferation of drones means European nations need to bolster air defenses, two people warned on the sidelines of the summit.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, gave a recorded presentation during the summit’s “Innovation Night” in which he showed video of the recent destruction of two Russian vessels near Crimea by underwater drones.

The ability to target Russian warships in that way has helped Ukraine establish and maintain a vital grain-shipping corridor since summer, defying Moscow.

“The drone fleet has opened Ukraine to the grain corridor in the Black Sea,” Fedorov said. Bloomberg News reported in December that Russia is moving more of its Black Sea naval fleet out of harm’s way after Ukrainian strikes near Crimea.

Investment in drones by Ukraine has stepped up following their success on the battlefield.

A coalition of Ukraine’s allies has pledged to deliver 1 million drones within a year, while the U.K. and other nations plan to provide new AI-enabled unmanned aerial vehicles that could swarm Russian targets simultaneously, Bloomberg reported on Saturday.

Russia’s war effort is also increasingly reliant on UAVs. It has attacked Ukraine with thousands of Iranian-made Shahed drones, often paired with ballistic and cruise missile barrages.

Drone InterceptorOne of the products shown at the Innovation Night was a 3D-printed drone interceptor developed by the startup Tytan Technologies to combat the cheap and plentiful Shaheds.

“The military is shooting down these drones with anti-aircraft guns and missiles, which cost millions,” Tytan Chief Executive Officer Balazs Nagy told an audience of investors, inventors and military personnel.

During the conference, some officials privately fretted that the U.S. may scale back support for the region and called for the development of more military equipment within the European Union.

The U.S. remains committed to its NATO allies, according to European Commission’s digital chief Margrethe Vestager. She said at a media briefing that 80% of Europe’s defense budgets are spent outside the bloc and called for spending money more effectively.

Artificial intelligence was another central theme at the conference, where enthusiasm about the potential of the technology was balanced by concern about how bad actors may exploit it.

Discussions on the dangers of AI in cyberspace and on social media drew large crowds, with technology companies announcing measures to detect deepfakes around elections and Alphabet Inc.’s Google presenting new tools to use AI to bolster online defenses.

Google Grants“AI, like most other useful technologies, can be used for malicious purposes,” Google said in a report on using the technology for digital security released ahead of the conference. “A system that can find vulnerabilities for defenders to fix, can also find vulnerabilities for attackers to exploit.”

Google also announced $10 million in grants for Ukrainian startups during the conference. Kent Walker, Alphabet’s president of global affairs, told Bloomberg that the financial support is aimed at creating a critical mass of entrepreneurs and encouraging foreign investment in Ukraine.

“There’s business opportunity there and it’s part of the larger effort of companies and democracies to work together to support the rule of law,” Walker said. “Part of that is helping democracies succeed.”

In a year where countries representing more than half the world’s population will hold presidential, local and legislative elections, voting integrity and the way that AI can manipulate voters were a key focus. Big Tech companies and AI developers, including OpenAI and Stability AI, announced an agreement to combat the spread of deepfake content during elections.

“Once you’ve been fooled by a deepfake, you’re no longer going to believe anything that you see and hear online,” said Dana Rao, general counsel at Adobe Inc. “Once you doubt everything you see, that’s a real danger to democracy.”