Other unmanned weapons systems that currently retain humans in or on the loop are also potential precursors to fully autonomous weapons. Militaries have already deployed ground robots, and air models are under development. If their potential for full autonomy in the use of lethal force were realized, these systems would pose a greater threat to civilians than automatic weapons defense systems. As currently designed, the systems discussed below would all have the capability to target humans. In addition, the increased mobility and offensive nature of the air systems in particular would give them more range and make them harder to control than weapons like the Phalanx.
South Korea and Israel have developed and started to use sentry robots that operate on the ground. South Korea installed SGR-1s, costing $200,000 each, along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for testing in 2010. These stationary robots can sense people in the DMZ with heat and motion sensors and send warnings back to a command center.
From there, human soldiers can communicate with the individual identified and decide whether to fire the robot sentry’s 5.5mm machine gun or 40mm automatic grenade launcher. The SGR-1’s sensors can detect people two miles away during the day and one mile away at night. Its guns can hit targets two miles away. At present, the sentry has autonomous surveillance capabilities, but it cannot fire without a human command. The journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers reported, however, “[T]he robot does have an automatic mode, in which it can make the decision.” The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has deployed Sentry Tech systems along Israel’s 60 kilometer border with Gaza. The sentry detects movement and sends signals to a facility “at a distant location.”47 Soldiers then evaluate the data and decide whether to fire at the target. The Sentry Tech currently has a 12.7mm or a .50 caliber machine gun with a kill zone of about 1 to 1.5 kilometers.48 To increase its range to several kilometers, the IDF is considering adding anti-armor missiles.49 Sentry Tech is reportedly designed to defend against people trying to cross the border as well as sniper and rocket attacks. In 2007, Jane’s Defence Weekly described Sentry Tech as “revolutionary” because it could not only detect threats but also engage them. While the system is currently operated by remote control, an IDF division commander told Defense News: “[A]t least in the initial phases of deployment, we’re going to have to keep the man in the loop.” The commander thus implied that human involvement may not always be the case.
Israel has also deployed the Guardium, “a semi-autonomous unmanned ground system,” which is reportedly used for patrolling Israel’s border with Gaza. It can carry lethal or nonlethal payloads. According to the manufacturer G-NIUS’s brochure, “[t]he Guardium UGV™ designed to perform routine missions, such as programmed patrols along border routes, but also to autonomously react to unscheduled events, in line with a set of guidelines specifically programmed for the site characteristics and security doctrine.”
While the brochure implies there is some level of human oversight because it refers to stationary, mobile, and portable control terminals, it also notes that the Guardium can have “autonomous mission execution.”
Unmanned aircraft are moving beyond existing drones to have greater autonomy. The US Navy has commissioned the X-47B, which will be able to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier and refuel on its own power.55 It was tested multiple times in 2012 and is scheduled in 2013 to do a trial landing on a carrier, “one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers.” Although as a prototype it will not carry weapons, it has reportedly been designed for eventual “combat purposes,”57 and it has two weapons bays with a total payload capacity of 4,500 pounds.58 Humans remain on the loop for the time being, but their role in the flight of the X-47B is limited. Northrop Grumman described it as a system that “takes off, flies a preprogrammed mission, and then returns to base in response to mouse clicks from its mission operator. The mission operator monitors the X-47B air vehicle’s operation, but does not actively ‘fly’ it via remote control as is the case for other unmanned systems currently in operation.”59 The Los Angeles Times called it “a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
The United Kingdom unveiled a prototype of its Taranis combat aircraft in 2010. Designers described it as “an autonomous and stealthy unmanned aircraft” that aims to strike “targets with real precision at long range, even in another continent.”61 Because Taranis is only a prototype, it is not armed, but it includes two weapons bays and could eventually carry bombs or missiles.62 Similar to existing drones, Taranis would presumably be designed to launch attacks against persons as well as materiel. It would also be able to defend itself from enemy aircraft. At this point, the Taranis is expected to retain a human in the loop. The
UK Ministry of Defence stated, “Should such systems enter into service, they will at all times be under the control of highly trained military crews on the ground.” Asked if the Taranis would one day choose its own targets, Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshal Simon Bryant responded, “This is a very sensitive area we are paying a lot of attention to.” He thus left the door open to the possibility of greater autonomy in the future.
Other countries have also developed or procured unmanned aircraft that are precursors to fully autonomous weapons. The Israeli Harpy, for example, has been described as a combination of an unmanned aerial vehicle and a cruise missile. It is designed to fly “autonomously to the patrol area.” Once there, it seeks to detect hostile radar signals and then destroy a target with a high explosive warhead.
The US military’s SWARMS technology would also involve autonomous aircraft, but in this case, many such aircraft would navigate in a synchronized way with a human controller directing them as a group “swarm” rather than individually.68 While initially designed to gather intelligence,69 SWARMS could one day undertake offensive operations. For example, their numbers, designed to be a force multiplier, could overwhelm an air defense system.
At least at this point, designers envision that SWARMS would have a human on the loop. Tests done in August 2012 showed that a single “operator on the ground, using only a laptop and a military radio, can command an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ‘swarm.’”
The ability of a single operator to have effective oversight of dozens or even hundreds of aircraft seems implausible to many experts.72 As a result, a swarm could operate as a de facto out-of-the-loop weapon.
Because humans still retain control over the decisions to use lethal force, the above weapons systems are not, at least yet, fully autonomous, but they are moving rapidly in that direction. Human oversight is minimal, especially in the case of SWARMS. At the same time, technology is developing that allows weapons to identify targets and travel to and around a battle zone on their own power. Proponents tout military advantages, such as a reduction in the number of human troops required for military operations, the availability of sentries not influenced by laziness or fear, and faster response time. Technological developments combined with these advantages of autonomy create incentives for states to develop weapons with greater autonomy.
Critics have two major concerns, however. First, they question the effectiveness of the existing limited human oversight.74 Second, they worry that the next step will be to grant these systems control over launching attacks. Speaking of Taranis, for example, Sharkey, a computer scientist and vocal critic of fully autonomous weapons, said, “But warning bells ring for me when they talk about Taranis being ‘a fully autonomous intelligent system’ together with applications in ‘deep missions’ and having a ‘deep target attack’ capability….
We need to know if this means the robot planes will choose their own targets and destroy them—because they certainly will not have the intelligence to discriminate between civilians and combatants.” Control systems specialist Nick Jennings did not object to SWARMS technology as a surveillance tool, but he warned, “We don’t want UAVs selecting targets and working out how best to carry out an attack.”76 Full autonomy would give weapons this power to decide when to fire.
Given that some believe that full autonomy could become a reality within 20 or 30 years, it is essential to consider the implications of the technology as soon as possible. Both supporters and skeptics have agreed on this point.77 The UK Ministry of Defence wrote, “[I]f we wish to allow systems to make independent decisions without human intervention, some considerable work will be required to show how such systems will operate legally.” Philip Alston, when serving as the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, warned that “[u]rgent consideration needs to be given to the legal, ethical and moral implications of the development and use of robot technologies, especially but not limited to uses for warfare.” The rest of this report will explore these implications, particularly as they relate to the protection of civilians during times of armed conflict.
- Israel patrols its borders with 10 autonomous off-road vehicles (geek.com)
- Law and Ethics for Autonomous Weapon Systems: Why a Ban Won’t Work and How the Laws of War Can (cfr.org)
- Taranis: $190 million drone coming to Australia (seeker401.wordpress.com)
- Fearsome UK Robot Aircraft Is Semi-Autonomous and Will Fly in 2013 (stratrisks.com)
- Fearsome UK Robot Aircraft Is Semi-Autonomous and Will Fly in 2013 (singularityhub.com)
- ‘Killer robots’ pose threat to peace and should be banned, UN warned (guardian.co.uk)
- Semi-autonomous killer drones from around the globe | Killer Apps (ramyabdeljabbar.wordpress.com)
- ‘Killer robots’ pose threat to peace and should be banned, UN warned (thetruthseeker.co.uk)
- UN to hear call for ban on ‘killer robots’ (irishtimes.com)