Potential Impact Of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems On South Asian Strategic Stability – OpEd


Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), which include drones and uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), will adversely impact the pursuit of evasive strategic stability in South Asia. Uncertainty, misunderstanding, and scenarios abound the development and deployment of LAWS. The technology leaders are on a developmental trajectory and have only used autonomous systems like UAS. The ones riding this tide of disruptive technologies want a monopoly and are least interested in pre-emptively banning their development. That is why all international efforts by Non-Aligned Movement’s 120 plus countries and their likeminded states have not been able to elaborate any international treaties on LAWS, cyber security etc.

In South Asia, India enjoys unprecedented access to cutting-edge indigenous technologies as well as from the West and even from Russia. The West is proliferating knowledge and technologies to India and blocking their access to Pakistan for political reasons. The history bears witness that a virtual monopoly can never be maintained on any technology. Once the U.S. and Russia made biological and chemical weapons, the others caught up with them and only then both Washington and Moscow introduced multilateral treaties banning biological and chemical weapons. Likewise, the U.S. thought it could monopolize nuclear weapons technology, but eight other states followed its footsteps. LAWS shall most likely follow similar trajectory. However, gaining access to knowledge and technologies and even indigenously developing these has become very difficult because the barriers raised by the technology-haves are becoming increasing unnegotiable every passing day.

Unless there is a balance of power between Pakistan and India and both are mutually vulnerable to the capabilities they possess, their relationship shall be strategically unstable. The side leading the technological curve shall have the tendency to pre-empt in a crisis. The side lagging shall face a use-it-or-lose-it dilemma and can also pre-empt in anticipation. Such unstable situation doesn’t suit nuclear powers. 

Hence, it follows that we cannot turn a blind eye to the development of fully autonomous armed military drones, the UAS, armed with lethal weapons that are as efficient killing machines as cruise missiles. Though these drones have been consistently deployed on the battlefield for a couple of decades, their use has increased in recent armed conflicts worldwide. For instance, two Russian airbases were attacked by Ukrainian drones recently. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense’s spokesperson, one of the Russian air bases is 500 kilometers and the other is 700 kilometers away from the Ukrainian territory. The successful attacks reflected gaps in air defense systems to deter drone technology. The rapid and continuous development of these drones with artificial intelligence (AI) capability are changing the tactics of military conflicts. 

The impact of the swarm drone technologies, especially subsurface anti-submarine ones, could adversely affect strategic stability in South Asia and elsewhere. India’s quest for big-power status and its unilateral arms race, augmented with LAWS shall increase its propensity for first strike and pre-emption, which are recipes for strategic instability. Since swarm drones can also defeat the ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems and the narrow geographical proximity of counter-value and counter-force targets between India and Pakistan complicate the situation like no other region and potentially make South Asian security dynamics more fragile and even prone to inadvertent escalatory risk. 

Emerging disruptive technologies like AI and machine learning in robotic systems require adequate examination on how these affect the pursuit of strategic stability. The use of AI in military sophisticated weapons or next-generation systems can disrupt practically every facet of war. Making the future weapons systems fully autonomous and taking the humans out of the decision-making loop is most certainly going the make future crises evolve fast enough to fail deadly rather than fail safely. LAWS are known for their decision-making capability enabled by AI, sophisticated information systems and sensors. The algorithms used to train (machine-learn) these systems can carry human biases with uncertain consequences. 

Like the depleting ozone layer, there gaping hole in international law is also broadening due to emerging disruptive technologies. For instance, there is a loophole in international law on the use of force. It’s a gray zone for the commander of the operation to use LAWS who cannot be held responsible for any misuse, collateral damage or accident. 

Since 2014, the UN has been trying to add a protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that would regulate the development, deployment, and use of LAWS. Despite increasing consensus in CCW the UN’s Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), which enjoys backing of international human rights activists, has been advocating a pre-emptive ban on the development of LAWS. A ban would make the points of their deployment and use irrelevant. This would address the moral, ethical and legitimacy-related aspects of LAWS. 

Pakistan has been among those states that had a leadership role that call for a ban on LAWS. However, for other states the technological competition for military purposes is more serious than it looks. For instance, India has shown little regard for ethics, morals, and human rights in its rapid acquisition of this technology and has taken a dubious course that will allow New Delhi to develop, deploy, and use LAWS.

Nuclear weapons capability has been a factor of stability between India and Pakistan, a stance that the Prime Ministers of both countries endorsed in a 2004 joint statement. However, since then, India has taken several destabilizing steps to erode deterrence stability, which includes the pursuit of military use of emerging disruptive technologies. Other destabilizing steps include seeking space for limited conventional war under a nuclear overhang, engaging in false flag operations after manufacturing crises, and engaging in terrorism against Pakistan. 

Once India creates a crisis and plays victim, the crime is overlooked for geopolitical reasons.  This partnership in crime carries a grave risk of nuclear escalation. India’s irresponsible behavior has affected strategic stability and will further accentuate the problem with deployment of LAWS and associated disruptive technologies. The consequential arms race in South Asia shall create a stability-instability paradox in which proliferation of nuclear weapons and related technologies shall increase instability. If India is actually interested in a stable South Asia, it shall have to walk its talk.

As for now, the U.S., Israel, Russia and a few others are arming India to the teeth for their geopolitical and commercial interests. In January 2022, Indian Defense Minister announced that Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) began research on information technology, AI, and robotics in technological warfare. Since then, Indian armed forces have rapidly made progress in the field of emerging technologies and have integrated new-age technologies. On the same occasion, products handed over to the Indian armed forces and Ministry of Home Affairs include anti-drone system and smart anti-airfield weapons. The DRDO also developed counter-drone systems for the deterrence and destruction of incoming drones. The Indian military has also inducted new swarm drone systems into its mechanized forces. A contract for purchasing the most advanced drones namely MQ-9 Reaper is under process with the U.S. 

India’s revisionist ideology, pursuit of great powers status, unilateral arms race and Hindutva ideology are a dangerous cocktail that shall increase strategic instability. The advent of lethal drones has raised many questions among defense experts. India’s capability for having such type of technology is not just an additional risk to the normal balance of power but a threat to regional stability. Indian army may use the LAWS and associated technologies in a future crisis that could lead to an unintended deterrence breakdown. 

Any responsible nuclear power must ensure the integration of risk assessment of every weapon system it seeks to acquire or develop. It entails checks and balances processing at every stage from policy level to lower tiers involving design, development, testing, and deployment of the entire life cycle of that weapon. This principle is more applicable to LAWS. This seems like a wild goose chase in India where DRDO had incidents of not following the standard operating procedures in dealing with strategic as well as conventional weapons. 

Even if one tends to trust the Indian alibi that the hit by BrahMos missile on 19 March 2002 was accidental, it raises big questions about Indian violation of its SOPs. The incident was one of many proofs that the West and Russia are betting on an unreliable and incompetent partner that is an irresponsible nuclear-armed state.   

Drones play a crucial role in pushing states into an arms race, harnessing indigenous capability for production and threatening to disturb peace. India’s military modernization is a pacing challenge to the effectiveness of the UN-sponsored non-proliferation regime.

The development, deployment, and the use of LAWS in South Asia shall vitiate the strategic environment and increase nuclear risk and the onus of doing that, like the global warming, will be on India and its partners. Pakistan needs to be vigilant and prepared for maintaining strategic balance in the region. 

Bio: Muhammad Ali Baig is Associate Research Officer at Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad, Pakistan. He is an M. Phil. scholar from Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He tweets @AliBaig111.

This article was also published at Daily Times

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