Drone race will ultimately lead to a sanitised factory of slaughter

Noel Sharkey – Guardian.co.uk August 4, 2012

The CIA has killed more than 200 children in drone strikes outside of legitimate war zones since 2004, it is alleged. In Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia an estimated total of between 451 and 1,035 civilians were killed in at least 373 strikes according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the most accurate source of “kill statistics”.

Who in their right mind would give a powerful unmanned air force to a covert organisation with such a track record for unaccountable and illegal killing? The number of strikes in Pakistan has dramatically increased from 52 under George W Bush during his five years of conflict to 282 during Obama’s three and a half-year watch. Obama is establishing a dangerous precedent that is, at best, legally questionable in a world where more than 50 countries are acquiring the technology.

This is big business with billions of dollars at stake. Israeli companies are pursuing new drone markets in Asia and Latin America. The US has restricted drone sales to its allies but now, with defence budgets shrinking, companies such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are lobbying their government to loosen export restrictions and open foreign markets in South America and the Middle East. Other countries such as India and Pakistan are also hungry for the technology. Russia has unveiled its MiG Skat combat drone with on-board cruise missiles for strikes on air defences as well as ground and naval targets, while Iran demonstrated an armed rocket launched drone, the Karrar, in 2010.

But it is China that is showing the greatest commercial potential for selling armed drones. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted with concern that China “has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat”. More worryingly, the Washington Post quotes Zhang Qiaoliang from the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute as saying, “the United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market”. Given the 10-year spate of CIA drone strikes, what can be said when other countries use drone strikes against perceived threats in other states?

And this is just the beginning; current drones are like the Wright brothers’ prototypes compared with what’s coming next. And here is where the real danger resides: automated killing as the final step in the industrial revolution of war – a clean factory of slaughter with no physical blood on our hands and none of our own side killed.

Using programmed robots with no humans directly in the loop has been high on the agenda set by the US military roadmaps since 2004. And BAE systems has been developing an autonomous combat aircraft demonstrator, the Taranis, for the Ministry of Defence. There are several good military reasons for removing direct human control. Currently drones are used with ease against low-tech communities in a permissive air space. More technologically sophisticated opponents would adopt counter strategies such as jamming satellite signals to render them useless or bring them down. A fully autonomous drone could still seek out its target without human intervention. Other reasons include to take out the pilot – reduced numbers of personnel required to fly them, reduced cost, and faster control time: the 1.5 second delays caused by humans in the loop thousands of miles away means that a drone is powerless against a manned fighter. The speed of an unmanned craft is limited by its structure rather than by human G-force limitations. It can manoeuvre faster and take sharp turns that would injure or kill a human pilot on board.

The US has been testing the fully autonomous supersonic Phantom Ray and the X-47b will appear on US aircraft carriers in the Pacific by 2015. Meanwhile, the Chinese (Shenyang Aircraft Company) are working on the Anjian (Dark Sword) supersonic unmanned fighter aircraft, the first drone designed for aerial dogfights.

Hypersonic drones are also on the wishlist. Darpa, the Pentagon’s research arm, has the HTV-2 programme to develop armed drones that can reach anywhere on the planet within 60 minutes. In recent tests their Falcon drone flew at a maximum speed of 13,000 mph (20,921.5 kph), about 8.5 times faster than the Russian MiG-25. The hypersonic fully autonomous drones of the future would create very powerful, effective, and flexible killing machines. The downside is that these machines will not be able to discriminate on their targets – there are no programmes capable of distinguishing civilian from combatant. We have records of civilian casualties, including numerous children, from drone strikes when there are humans watching on computer screens and deciding when to fire. Think how much worse it will be when drones deal death automatically. Is this really a technology we want the secret intelligence services of the world to control?

• Noel Sharkey is professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at Sheffield University. He is a founding member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

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