SOF Week: Autonomy and AI Take Lead with Future of Tactical Lethality

I had spent the past week at SOFWeek in Tampa to see what the latest innovations were in the defense space and one thing was blatantly obvious: The rise of artificial intelligence and autonomy in modern warfare. To many, this is quite obvious, but to see the sheer amount of AI-augmented technology presented at the conference painted a clear picture as the the future of global conflict and the capabilities that will be fielded, from intelligence tools, logistics management, and kinetic effects.

While giving his keynote address at SOF Week 2023, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) acquisition executive Jim Smith described how “artificial intelligence is going to be key to every single thing,” highlighting the Department of Defense’s shift to AI for national defense.

The concept of AI in modern warfare represents a bit of a paradigm shift in how conflicts are approached, blending the latest technological advancements with strategic and tactical level decision making processes. AI-driven autonomy offers one key thing: a faster, more precise, and adaptive response than that of a human on the battlefield through the analysis of real-time data points.

We have already begun to see AI-driven warfare with unmanned systems being deployed to Ukraine on both sides, which have started to rely on autonomous navigation and targeting packages to avoid jamming. The concept of AI-driven warfare is still in its infancy, but further development will see other innovations in the defense of critical infrastructure and border security. However, policymakers and AI innovators will need to engage in thoughtful dialogue to establish frameworks that promote the responsible use of militarized AI, while upholding the fundamental principles of human rights and international law.


The Sentry

The Sentry has the ability to be a man-portable system that can be deployed alongside operators.

One novel system trying to bridge the gap between autonomy and lethality for the next generation of special warfare operations is the Onyx Industries “Sentry,” which was made in partnership with the American defense AI company OKSI. The system piqued my interest as it differed from the pack in regard to the countless number of quadcopter drones I saw will walking the floors of SOF Week.

The Sentry is an AI-enabled remote weapon system, which can “autonomously scan, detect, classify, track, and report any threat,” such as enemy combatants, vehicles, or drones. From there, the user takes control and must turn off a physical and digital safety integrated into the system before engaging the target, ensuring there is a human in the loop aspect and that the Sentry does not fire on its own. Onyx said that the system was designed to be a multi-functional “force multiplier” that provides “an additional set of eyes and weapon on target when you need it most.” 

Photo showing the Sentry’s controller, which ensures a human in the loop element for engagement.

The Sentry is comprised of three main components: An AI-enabled X360 Pan/Tilt Gimbal, multi-caliber Remote Actuated Weapon (RAW), and a thermal-capable Digital Imaging System (DIS), all of which is fully integrated with the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK). The DIS, arguably one of the most critical components of the system, is produced by OKSI, whose AI software and digital optics carries out the autonomous target detection and recognition for engagement, which also has automated ballistics calculation.

Speaking on the system, Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) sensitive activities project manager Jacob Chapa stated in a LinkedIn post that the Sentry is “another phenomenal project by Onyx industries! As we move towards fifth generation warfare, autonomous systems are going to [become] increasingly necessary when dealing with our adversaries. Seeing companies like Onyx Industries spearhead the effort to create these systems in order to save American lives will always be something worth celebrating!”


Diverse Mission Set

The system looks to have been designed to be a versatile piece of equipment meant to be integrated across a number of platforms, allowing for a multimodal and multidomain capability. In layman’s terms, the Sentry is supposed to be adaptable to a warfighter’s needs whether it be on land, sea, or air.

The Sentry has been shown by itself on a tripod to act as a… well… sentry gun, where it can identify and alert against targets in a denied environment. The company has also released a version for solely ISR with a multi-imager only platform.

Photo showing the KRAKA USV equipped with the Sentry.

The Sentry has been displayed on an array of unmanned systems, as recently shown on the Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 quadrupedal unmanned ground vehicle (Q-UGV) for ground operations. The Sentry seems to also be attachable to essentially any wheeled, tracked, or legged UGV from what can be seen from its design. Likewise, the Sentry has been applied to the maritime domain, as seen on SOAL Marine’s KRAKA unmanned surface vessel (USV). Q-UGV use in combat scenarios remains to be seen, however, testing shows that the platforms can be utilized for security or in confined areas where warfighters are at greater risk of harm (like we have seen in Ukraine with increased UGV activity). The KRAKA USV could be utilized as a maritime defensive capability, allowing for autonomous interceptors to protect critical maritime infrastructure or respond to pirates/maritime threats.

The Sentry seems to be mountable to essentially anything, including manned vehicles such as ATVs, which Onyx is testing with off road, on the move targeting and engagement. While speaking with Onyx, they said that they are working with a variety of innovative partners and are honored to support many allied defense organizations by enabling the compliant testing of Sentry in next-generation warfare. 

Photo showing AimLock’s R-S1.

Another capability seen at SOF Week was presented by AimLock, which similar to the Sentry, allowed for the integration of AI-enabled weapons targeting for unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which they describe as “cutting-edge systems [which] incorporate weapon stabilization, advanced fire-control, and automated battlefield management solutions, introducing Autonomous Precision Targeting Solutions to close combat users.”

This could be seen with their platforms such as the R-S1 and R-S2, which integrate both traditional ballistic firearms and rocket launchers into UAS. Likewise, AimLock also partners with Onyx, where the RAW complements their secure targeting suite with a purpose built weapon, as seen on the Q-UGV.


Questions Over Ethics

Concerns over ethics have been one of the primary questions raised amid the rise of autonomous and unmanned systems used in warzones.

Speaking with Onyx COO Chris Klaftenegger, he stated that “As one of many dedicated companies at the forefront of innovation towards development of unmanned systems, we believe it is our responsibility to ensure that intelligent tactical systems are designed not only to advance military capabilities, but also to enable decision-making, transparency, accountability, and ultimately, to safeguard human life in the face of conflict.”

Chris emphasized a prime focus on requiring a human in the loop when dealing with innovations that involve a weapon, stating that “Our corporate ethics of integrating any form of artificial intelligence in our products are held at the highest regard.”

“We recognize our corporate social-responsibility to support and enable our current and future warfighters while promoting the protection of human life,” he said, adding that “Onyx maintains strict compliance to DoD policies that govern our technology roadmaps.”


Future of AI and Autonomous Lethality

The future of AI and autonomous lethality in warfare presents a complex landscape that must be treaded carefully. While advancements in AI can revolutionize military capabilities by enhancing the precision, speed, and efficiency at which combat operations and the decision making behind them are made, the prospect of allowing a machine to carry out lethal effects will challenge the traditional notions of warfare, especially when it comes to accountability and the rules of war.

On one hand, AI and autonomy can collect and analyze vast amounts of information and data faster than any human can, allowing for faster reaction times in dynamic situations that can potentially reduce the risk of unintended casualties. There will always be death in war, but increased reliance on unmanned systems reduces the exposure of soldiers to combat and AI targeting could help reduce errant engagements and cut down on civilian deaths and collateral damage.

On the other hand, leaving AI and autonomy to identify, target, and engage adversaries without direct human intervention will create a precedent in warfare even more void of morals and control, further raising fears of a Black Mirror or 9-style dystopia. With that, human in the loop aspects of AI-driven warfare are the guardrails needed to avoid this.

Unbiased & Unfiltered News Reporting for 12+ years. Covering Geo-Political conflicts, wartime events, and vital Breaking News from around the world. Editor-In-Chief of Atlas News.


Brazil Recalls Ambassador to Israel

According to Brazilian state media, Brazil has recalled its ambassador to Israel, in part due to Israel's conduct in the war in Gaza, as well as in response to...

South Korea, Japan, and the United States to Hold Vice Ministerial Meetings

The United States, South Korea, and Japan will have a vice foreign ministerial meeting later this week in Virginia, as confirmed by the State Department on Monday, May 27th,...