ISSN 2330-717X

Unmanned Military Weapons: International Humanitarian Law Without Human Terrain – Analysis

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By Dr. Nafees Ahmad*

Unmanned Military Weapons (UMW) system based on Autonomous Weapons Technologies (AWT) mesmerizes doppelgängers of Terminator-style robots; deadly machines backed by convoluted artificial intelligence which is qualified of exterminating human beings devoid of being impeded by human sentiments and traditional constrictions. This image is akin to science fiction and raises challenges about the development of UMW that vanguard the international legal discourse in the contemporary circumstances.UMW is innovation,and its adherence to the core principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) must be ensured. It is now obligatory upon the international community to address the lego-political, moral and ethical ramifications of the development of robotic technologies that might have lethal consequences.On October 24, 2010, in a report to the UN General Assembly Human Rights Committee, Christof Heyns—a Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions—opined that UMW systems flagged “serious concerns that have been almost entirely unexamined by human rights defenders or humanitarian actors” at the anvil of IHL. Therefore, UN must constitute a panel to evaluate the legal, moral and ethical aspects of UMW that are being mushroomed in the US and deployed fortarget killings in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In June 2010, another UN official Philip Alston requested for terminationto CIA-guided drone airstrikeson Al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives and suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.Alston articulated that killings ordered far from the battleground could lead to a “PlayStation”mindset. The CIA contested his findings by statingbut without confirming that it conductedthe airstrikes and military operations “within a framework of law and close government oversight.” Heyns—a South African Professor of Law—was of the view that there was a need to discuss responsibility for civilian casualties and how to ensure that the use of robots complied with IHL, and human rights standards for developing the AWT. Thus, Heyns asked the UN to take up the issue head-on by exhorting the then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to organizea group of national representatives, philosophers, IHL experts,human rights defenders,developers and scientists to promote a debate on the legal, political, ethical, and moral implications of UMW systems. There is a fundamental question that must immediately be addressed,i.e., should lethal force ever be permitted to be fully automated and unmanned? Is it legally and morally correct to allow UMW to kill humans on the battlefields? Is it in compliance with IHL to transfer the decision from human being to machines to kill humans?

International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) released a document on November 19, 2012,called Losing Humanity: The Case against KillerRobots, wherein a ban on the production and use of UMW was advocated. Subsequently, US Department of Defence (DoD) circulated a Directive 3000.09 wherein DoD adumbrated its policies on the development and use of UMW. On April 9, 2013, Heyns askedfor a moratorium on the development of UMW until an acceptable legal framework is developed. However, the UN, IHRC,andDoD differed on the solution,andthey together commenced from the hypothesis that UMW would broach challenges of compliance to IHL. Therefore, the core principles of IHL such as principles of distinction and proportionality are insufficient to address the troubles raised by the UMW which require a more planned,controlledand coordinated legal regime to be emplaced to ensure the legality and morality of the use of UMW.There are also questions about the existing principles of command responsibility which are not adequate to provide the adherence of UMW with the IHL principles.

Unmanned Military Weapons?

Aroboticist Noel Sharkeydefines an unmanned machine as one that “carries out a preprogrammed sequence of operations or moves in a well-defined environment.” In contrast, anautonomous machine operates in an amorphous environment. It is de rigueurto distinguish between weapons that are developed and designed as automated and unmanned weapons and weapons that are trulyautonomous. The term “autonomy” can be challenging to define as it alludes to highly intelligent robotsthat are capable of individual decision-making. The reality looks a lot less like science fiction,and more like everyday robotics.Inquintessence, what makes a machine autonomous is its environment of operation rather than its internal procedures. The DoD espouses a comprehensive definition of UMW whereunder “a weapon system once that is activated, can select and engage targets devoid of further intervention by a human hand. It includes human-controlled UMW systems that are designed to allow human operators to supersede theoperation of the weapon structure but can chooseand securetargets without further participationafter activation. The DoD definition’s essential requirement is that once activated; it can “select and engage targets” without further human input. Human Rights Watch (HRW) adopts an identical definition “any robot that can select and engage targets without human input, even if there is a human oversight, will qualify as a fully autonomous robot.” Thus, these definitions encapsulate the distinguishing nature of UMW that humans are not indispensable for the targeting decision-making process. In essence, there is a difference of predictability between UMW automatic weaponry. An automatic weapon system is wholly predictable except a breakdown. However, the UMW can only be anticipated as a sequence of similar results. It is crucial to have the determination of distinction to appreciate the capability of UMW of having compliance with IHL norms.

The emergence of UMW can develop in two different directions: as the expansionofhuman soldiers or as the replacement of humans in the battleground by unmanned proxies.In other words, the distinction is between UMW that expand or replace our soldiers and those automatic war machines that could be potential soldiers. Currently, the dominant perception is that robots will be deployed only to supplement andbroaden our soldier’s engagement in thehostilities. In this context, UMW system isappreciatedas weapons that keep humans away from combat. Primarily, the UMW is the latesttechnological advancement that originated from the traditional archery. In the same way, the diagnostic responses to the potential introduction of UMW are notunusual. However, any introduction of new weapons is challenged by some as unethical or illegal.However, the idea that UMW will replace our soldiers is gaining currency in the years ahead. The UMW system is more than an extension of humans when they have the potential to decideto kill without human engagement in the hostilities. However, the deployment of drones could be castigated for a multitude of reasons, but their competence of compliance with the principles of IHL is indisputablebecause humans are involved in the targeting process.Whereas the UMW would take human operators out of the decision-making architecturethat has been contemplated under the IHL regime. It is an acceptable war doctrine that human beings have been maintaining distance from war through technology and weapons development since antiquity. But visualizing battle without humans has not yet been imagined and removing human soldiers from the war process would be a paradigmatic shift in the event of UMW system development.

The Future of UMW

Currently, the UMW is not in action entirely,but it has been growing gradually at a pace that has not been seen before. Several weapons systems are attaining full autonomous abilities. International experts like Werner JA Dahm in his piece “Killer Drones Are Science Fiction” published in The Wall Street Journal on February 15, 2012, stated that the deployment of UMW is predestined and impending in the future. He further contends that the technology required for “fully autonomous military strikes” is already present. The development of UMW would augment vertically and horizontally with aspects of operations such as take-off and navigation, and lead to full autonomy over time.With the technological advancements, more and more sophisticated sensing and computational systems will becarried out.The increased tempo of warfare and pressures to minimize casualties will also create demand forUMW. Several weapons systems include semi-autonomous capabilities already, and the level of automation in weapons systems is progressively increasing.

Recently, the South Korean military has posted an immobile sentinel robot in the Korean Demilitarized (KDZ) which can detect and select the military objects. Such a robot can respond with lethal or non-lethal force by the attending situation on the ground. However, the final decision about targeting must be of human beings and not of robots as robots would decide without human intervention. Nevertheless, the robot is competent to select and engage targets without human application, but its location in the KDZ makes it uncalled for the robot to differentiate between civilian and military objects. However, arobot treats any person as a hostile combatant who crosses the pre-demarcated line. The Aegis-class cruisers of the US Navy currently has the Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems (PC-inWS) which are autonomously capable of performing its searches, detection, evaluation, tracking and killing assessment functions. The PC-inWS has been designed in four types: (1) semi-automatic, where humans command the firing decision; (2) automatic special, where humans decide targets, but the software determines how to execute them; (3) automatic, where humans supervise the system, but it operates without their input; and (4) casualty, where the systems does whatever is necessary to save the ship.

Thus, the UK has been testing a new semi-autonomous aircraft called Taranis and BAE Systems—the Designer—hailed it as an “autonomous and unmanned stealthaircraft” capable of autonomous aviation. However, humans have been retained for the time being,but they are likely to be replaced gradually. The X-47B—a semi-autonomous drone—the US has been developing that will take off and land without human deployment. The developer assertsthat it is a mechanism that “takes off, lands and aviates a preprogrammed mission, and then returns to base with a mouse click administered by its mission operator. The mission operator supervisesthe machine’s operation but does not actively involve in flying it via remote control as is the situation for other unmanned weapons systems currently in operation.The current development of X-47B does not envision autonomous target selection but would be capable of semi-autonomous flight. The development of UMW has been integratedinto all roadmaps of the US forces since 2004.The US Air Force’s Flight Plan proposesthat by the year 2025 completelyautonomous and unmanned flight systems will be a reality. Sharkey claims to have read certain robotics development projects from more than 50 countries including Canada which ispresently engaged in developing UMW systems.The US Air Force Major Michael A. Guetlin states that “[it] is not a matter of ‘will’ we employ [autonomous weapons]; it is a matter of ‘when’ we employ them.”

UMW System Advantages

Some tactical and operational factors promote the development of lethal UMW systems. The UMW systems are cheaper to operate than human-operated weapons and are capable of performing continuously, without the need for rest.Gordon Johnson, a member of the now-defunct Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command, highlighted the benefits of UMW: “They don’t get hungry. They are not afraid. They do not forget commands and directives. They do not worry if the guy next to them has just been hit or targeted. Will UMW do a better job than humans? Of course, Yes.Human operators are susceptible to fatigue and exhaustion.Though it can be possible to broaden mission times for humans of up to 72 hours with performance enhancers, eventually a human needs rest. The UMW is capable of performing for as long as their batteries sustain them. As battery and recharging technologyadvances, the possible mission and target time for UMW will continue to increase. A smaller number of humans are required for the operation of UMW systems. It may soon be possible for a single operator to manage a swarm of semi-autonomous drones, or for a single human commander to assign mission parameters to UMW, and monitor them from a secure distance. Therefore, it will allow for a distancing of the human warfighter and the battle space and expands the battle space. Consequently, the combatwill be able to be conducted over a much larger area than before. UMW has the capability of processing battleground information in a faster and efficient manner than human operators. UMW could be installed with a multitude of sensory technologies like infrared and thermal vision, high definition cameras and state-of-the-art acoustic sensors that would enhance UMW’s superiority over sensory capabilities of humans.

There are vulnerabilities with the modern remotely guided vehicles due to the possibility that would interfere with enemy satellites, radar systems or radio frequencies. However, the UMW systems assuage these anxieties as they would be capable of performing without perennial contact with base camp.At present, remotely piloted systems have a delay time of about1.5 Seconds, restrictingtheirefficacyin a greatertempo battlespace. Thus, the impugned delay would make it impracticalfor a remotely piloted system to combatin aerialwarfare, which UMW aeronautical capabilities would make achievable. The proponents of UMW advocatethat UMW may, in fact,bemore adept at adhering to the principles of IHL than the soldiers logic and emotions. The UMW systems might be capable of performingmore conservatively because they would not lunge forpreservation instinct. Therefore, robotic sensors would be better well-equipped to make battleground observations and surveillancethan human combatants. The UMW would be designed without emotions that are bound to cloud sense of judgment of human soldiers, but UMW would be free from all the psychological infirmities and frailties of scenario fulfillment; the experiencesand occurrencesof human beings which they use as new information to fit their pre-existing belief patterns and combat orientation.

No Wrap-Up

It is, indeed, a reality now that UMW systems are here to stay as inalienable war machinery of the modern world and it is destined to be vertically and horizontally gradational in their advancement. The deployment of UMW systems posesa multitude of challenges including adhering to the IHL principles of distinction and proportionality. In IHL, principles, and standards have been defined for human soldiers and technology might never be able to substitute human beings in entirety. Making a distinction between civilian and combatants needs computational processing capability that has not been accomplished as of now. With the requisite technology development, the definition of civilian may not be adequately specific for UMW software. Therefore, the idiosyncratic and circumstantial nature of proportionality entails an assessment of dynamics that might not be workable for the machines. Further, there are ethical and moral challenges emanate from the UMW systems such as should the decision to kill a human being be assigned to a drone or robot? Having vigorously assessed the potentialchallenges of adherence to the IHL principles, we must not attribute UMW systems a higher standard than human management of warfare. However, there are umpteen instances of war crimes, indiscriminate attacks, crimes against humanity, and disproportionate use of force by the human soldiers in the human history. The introduction of UMW system is flgrantly bound to lead to the moral detachment and unethical expansion of battle space. But UMW has to peregrinate a long way before matching the human mind and human sense of justice. The UMW system is not necessary for making the distinction and calculating proportionality if measured against the human input.Nevertheless, human soldiers would be there in the loop as a goofproof when UMW system is first deployed in the battlefields; their engagement would fade away with the time. With the diminishing of human engagement, the complications confronted by the UMW in adhering to the principles of IHL would be unprecedentedly prominent necessitating the comprehensive lego-institutional analysis to re-conceiving the human terrain of International Humanitarian Law.

About the author:
*Dr. Nafees Ahmad
, Ph. D., LL.M, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University (SAARC)-New Delhi, Nafees Ahmad is an Indian national who holds a Doctorate (Ph.D.) in International Refugee Law and Human Rights. Author teaches and writes on International Forced Migrations, Climate Change Refugees & Human Displacement Refugee, Policy, Asylum, Durable Solutions and Extradition Issus. He conducted research on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Jammu & Kashmir and North-East Region in India and has worked with several research scholars from US, UK and India and consulted with several research institutions and NGO’s in the area of human displacement and forced migration. He has introduced a new Program called Comparative Constitutional Law of SAARC Nations for LLM along with International Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law and International Refugee Law & Forced Migration Studies. He has been serving since 2010 as Senior Visiting Faculty to World Learning (WL)-India under the India-Health and Human Rights Program organized by the World Learning, 1 Kipling Road, Brattleboro VT-05302, USA for Fall & Spring Semesters Batches of US Students by its School for International Training (SIT Study Abroad) in New Delhi-INDIA nafeestarana[at]gmail.com,drnafeesahmad[at]sau.ac.in

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This article was published by Modern Diplomacy


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