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National Interest: The War in the Middle East is Becoming an Incubator for a Revolution in Military AI


Most people associate the war in Gaza with tanks and ruins, familiar to the public from television footage. However, a closer look reveals a new, futuristic dimension to the battlespace that is created not only by firefights and air strikes, but also by algorithms and robotics.

The IDF's miniature kamikaze drones, the IDF's Firefly, navigate autonomously through the streets of Gaza. Namer and Eitan armored personnel carriers traverse the rubble using Edge 360 artificial intelligence systems for algorithmic threat detection. Israeli Merkava tanks, equipped with the world's first "Trophy" active defense system, fire automatic projectiles that intercept Hamas rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.

Artificial intelligence-powered drones attempt to map Hamas' vast network of tunnels, while IRIS and Vision 60 robots maneuver through it using specialized sensors and cameras that detect objects and people. According to the startup's founders, IDF infantry are armed with rifles enhanced by SMASH, an artificial intelligence-enabled optical sight that turns every soldier into a sniper. Meanwhile, a miniature semi-autonomous robot named Jaguar patrols the Gaza border fence.

Above it all is the Fire Weaver artificial intelligence system, which connects intelligence-gathering sensors to weapons in the field. The Gospel and Lavender systems use machine learning to automatically generate targeted recommendations by sifting through massive amounts of data from sprawling surveillance networks. While before 2020 it took the IDF ten days to acquire and approve ten targets, autonomous systems are capable of hitting ten times as many targets in that time period.

Today, Washington and Beijing are at the center of the battle for technological supremacy, but the Middle East is suddenly becoming an incubator for military revolution. In particular, businesses and governments in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel have invested heavily in the development of autonomous military technologies. Abundant research and development budgets, advanced infrastructure, strategic connections and access to skilled labor have helped the three highly militarized countries gain an edge in the new AI-powered defense landscape.

During the Trump administration, after the United States refused to sell its latest armed drone to the UAE, Abu Dhabi asked China to purchase 5 Wing Loong II drones. Most recently, in August 2023, Abu Dhabi announced its first joint exercises with the People's Liberation Army of China. In 2022, Saudi Arabia hosted the first China-Arab summit, which promised to expand "technical and scientific" cooperation with China. Beijing's growing attractiveness as an alternative supplier of weapons and technology to Middle Eastern countries is due to the PRC's non-interference in their domestic politics and the offer of cheaper high-tech weapons. Even Israel has sought to establish joint Chinese-Israeli ventures to produce Phalcon and Harpy drones.

Faced with human capital challenges and scarce non-energy industrial bases, Gulf oil states are hoping to use AI to “leapfrog technology” in the quest for sustainable economic growth. It is estimated that AI spending in the Middle East could potentially reach $320 billion by 2030, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi the most likely investors. Almost 40 percent of companies in the UAE and 45 percent of companies in Saudi Arabia are preparing to develop the use of artificial intelligence.

Gulf states are relying on artificial intelligence and a growing local high-tech defense industry for post-oil development. At the same time, Israel's economy and export base rely on the synergy of military and commercial high technology. As drone attacks by non-state belligerents and Iranian assertions change traditional threat perceptions, the region's small states are hunting for increased forces and precision defense capabilities. The increasingly multipolar Middle East has become a key frontier in the superpowers' struggle for technological supremacy.


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