Chapter: Dutch AI start-ups will soon swarm the Ukraine battlefield

Last week, the NOS reported that the Dutch Minister of Defence Kajsa Ollongren visited Ukraine and brought along a trade delegation consisting of small high tech startups specialized in developing military-relevant AI. 

The delegation’s goal, Ollongren explained, was to bring about a “win-win situation” aimed at making Ukraine “stronger and resilient in response to Russia’s way of war” by combining Dutch AI driven software with Ukrainian hardware to deliver deadlier drones to the Ukrainian frontlines.

Among the Dutch startups that returned home with signed contracts was Avalor AI. Its founder Maurits Korthals Altes considers the novel collaborations and the resulting opportunity to expose his software to real battlefield experiences a valuable opportunity to improve his product. At a symposium on algorithmic warfare organized by IRW in 2022, he stated that at the time, drone swarms were trained exclusively in simulated settings, as the company lacked access to data that accurately grasped the complexity and unpredictability inherent to live combat. Through its new Ukrainian business partners, Avalor AI can launch its products directly into wartime settings. 

Already, we see that products with a “Ukraine-tested”-trademark can count on increased interest from potential buyers, opening doors to new complexes and battlescapes. Similarly, Avalor AI’s Korthals Altes hopes that his new partners will in turn supply the MoD “when the war is over”. The true benefit of such partnerships for Ukraine, however, appears to remain limited, as drones only partially replace the scarce artillery needed to counter Russia’s heavy bombing.

For the past two years, IRW has investigated the actors and interests driving the emerging military-industrial-commercial complex in The Netherlands and beyond. It is exactly this partnership between the Dutch MoD, Avalor AI, and other private commercial high tech companies that IRW’s Dr. Lauren Gould, Linde Arentze, and Dr. Marijn Hoijtink examine in their latest chapter ‘Assembling the Future of Warfare: Innovating Swarm Technology within the Dutch Military-Industrial-Commercial Complex’ in the edited volume ‘Beyond Ukraine: Debating the Future of War’ to be published by Hurst/Oxford University Press on March 28.

In their chapter, Gould, Arentze, and Hoijtink trace Avalor AI’s emergence from “Project SPEAR”, in which the MoD assembled Milrem Robotics, the Dutch Army’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) unit, research institute TNO, and hardware-focused startup Tective in 2019 to develop autonomous drone swarms to accompany Milrem’s modular THeMIS unmanned ground vehicle.

Their analysis uncovers the difficulties and tensions that emerged in the MoD’s efforts to draw in commercial tech companies and AI solutions and the experimentative tactics that emerged to resolve them. A notable tension was the reluctance some startups felt towards the integration of their ideas and technologies into (autonomous) lethal weapons systems. One entrepreneur involved in Project SPEAR articulated in 2022, “I do not want the drones we deliver to be weaponized”. However, when questioned about the extent of their control over this matter, they conceded, “Well… That is the question. I am not entirely sure. We still have to figure that out.”

To smooth out such tensions, the MoD was quick to assure hesitant partners that their technologies would be used for purposes beyond direct combat, and that full system autonomy was never on the agenda. Nevertheless, with Avalor AI’s recent agreement to integrate Project SPEAR AI with Ukrainian hardware to supply “independent” and “deadlier” drones to the Ukrainian frontlines, it appears evident that the path toward increased system autonomy and lethality does not remain off-limits when new opportunities arise.

As these cycles of development and military deployment of AI innovations continue and more commercial actors are drawn in, lines of responsibility become increasingly blurry, risking a growing lack of transparency and legal and democratic accountability in the military domain. In this reality, it also becomes harder for those who benefit to feel responsible for the harm that their systems are designed to cause.

To dive into Gould, Arentze, and Hoijtink’s chapter ‘Assembling the Future of Warfare: Innovating Swarm Technology within the Dutch Military-Industrial-Commercial Complex’, secure your copy of ‘Beyond Ukraine: Debating the Future of War’ today by clicking on the reference below, or contact Linde Arentze.

Gould, L., L. Arentze, and M. Hoijtink. 2024. ‘Assembling the Future of Warfare: Innovating Swarm Technology within the Dutch Military-Industrial-Commercial Complex’. In Beyond Ukraine: Debating the Future of War, edited by T. Sweijs and J. Michaels. London: Hurst.

Image source: U.S. Department of Defense. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.