Aerospace - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 47
A matter of precision
Noel Sharkey, Professor of AI and Robotics at Sheffield University, considers the complex issues surrounding the use of unmanned aircraft in lethal missions
Thousands of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones populate the airspace over Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pakistan tribal regions. Their undisputed successes in both intelligence gathering and armed attacks have made them a showcase for military powers everywhere. The insatiable demand for UAVs is not only driving production in the United States; more than 40 other countries have UAV programmes. After the US, Israel is the largest manufacturer. Currently, all of the armed drones have a 'man-in-the-loop' to decide on the application of lethal force, but there is a clear progression towards 'man-on-the-loop' systems and towards full autonomy. The increasing use of armed drones
Armed remote operated drones are said to be the most requested resource from ground forces in the Middle East conflict zones. The first armed drone used in the fight against al-Qaeda was the Predator MQ-1, made by General Atomics. Beginning as a surveillance drone in the Bosnia conflict in 1995, it was successfully armed and tested with two Hellfire missiles in 2001. Its first kill was in Yemen in 2002 when a CIA controlled MQ-1 killed a known al-Qaeda leader and five other men travelling in the same vehicle. This was controversial at the time but was considered, by Department of Defence lawyers, to be a legitimate defensive pre-emptive strike against al-Qaeda.
As well as the CIA programme aimed at alleged terrorists, there is also a publicly acknowledged military version of the programme. Missions are flown by 'pilots' of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, the first unit dedicated to UAVs at the Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert, thousands of miles away from the operation. The Royal Air Force 39th Squadron also participate at Creech. The usefulness of the MQ-1 fleet is clear from the 400,000 mission hours clocked up by August 2008.
In October 2007, the Predator fleet was joined by the larger and more powerful MQ-9 Reaper with a payload capacity of 1,700kg – up to 14 hellfire missiles or a mixture of missiles and bombs. Shifts of pilots can fly it around the clock for up to 40 continuous hours. The UK has procured two Reapers with four more on order.
The number of Reapers flying in operations doubled after their first year and General Atomics have reported difficulties in keeping up with the demand. By March 2009, the number of armed drones in the field was reported to be 195 Predators and 28 Reapers. Anticipated increases can be seen in the training figures for Predator crews. In 2005, 32-person crews consisting of a pilot and sensor operator were being trained per year, whereas in 2008, 160 crews were trained and in late 2008, an additional $412m was added to the budget for training more non-pilot operators.
In a report for the New America Foundation in June, Bergen and Tiedemann said how President Obama had ratcheted up the number of strikes since taking office. Under the new administration, the armed UAV programmes are receiving more money than predicted. In 2010, the air force aims to spend $2.13bn on unmanned technology with $489.24m to procure 24 new heavily armed Reapers. The US Army plans to spend $2.13bn on unmanned vehicle technology. This will include the purchase of 36 more unmanned predators. The US Navy and Marine Corp plan $1.05bn on unmanned vehicles. Problematic accuracy
The most publicised use of the armed drones has been for the targeted killing of suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. These, so-called 'decapitation attacks', aim to keep severing the leadership (head) from the organisation until the replacements are drawn from the shallow end of the talent pool. There has been controversy over whether the targeted killings violate the Presidential Executive Order outlawing politically motivated assassinations that has been in force since the Ford presidency in 1976. The work-around was President Bush's declaration of war on terror, which means insurgents can be treated as non-uniformed combatants and are thus legitimate targets of personal attack.
There have been high profile successes, such as the recent killing of the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, on the roof of his in-law's house. However, an increasing number of reports suggest that a disproportionate number of civilians are losing their lives. As Jane Mayer reports in her article 'The Predator War', in the New Yorker on 26th October this year, the hunt for Mehsud resulted in 16 missile strikes over 14 months with between 107 and 321 additional people being killed. The range indicates the extreme difficulty of collecting accurate figures.
Another high profile example was the attempted killing of Abu Laith al-Libi – one of al-Qaeda's top commanders in June 2007. The subsequent enquiry found that those killed included seven Afghan children but not Abu Laith al-Libi. US military officials later told NBC News that they had been aware of the presence of the children but such a high-value target made it worth the risk of child casualties.
Concerns were also raised at the United Nations General Assembly this October by Philip Alston, a UN Special Rapporteur, about the amount of collateral damage resulting from drone attacks. He noted that the CIA, which controls many drones over the Pakistani tribal regions, should not be allowed to "determine in complete isolation, who, when and where they should kill". Alston said that such targeted executions by the CIA could be perceived as a violation of international law. His report recommends the US Government "should make public the number of civilians collaterally killed as a result of drone attacks, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties".
Concerns about civilian casualties from drone attacks are borne out elsewhere. A Human Rights Watch report, Precisely Wrong (June 2009), focused on six Israeli drone strikes in Gaza that resulted in 29 civilian deaths, eight of them children.
The advantages of drones for precise targeting and round the clock loitering with high resolution cameras and sensors can lead to an overestimation of what can be achieved. Many of the strikes are limited by intelligence sources on the ground, which, as Jane Mayer puts it, are notoriously unreliable. She quotes a former CIA officer: "'Often, they say an enemy of theirs is al-Qaeda because they just want to get rid of somebody. Or they made crap up because they wanted to prove they were valuable, so that they could make money."
Despite these problems for man-in-the-loop systems, the next stage in the UAV plan is to shrink the role of the man-in-the-loop with the longer-term aim of removing humans almost entirely from the operating environment. This could be a dangerous move.In-the-loop, on-the-loop or off-the-loop
According to the most recent US Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047, autonomous operation will begin with tasks such as take-off, landing and refuelling. However, as unmanned drones react much faster than humans, the "humans will no longer be 'in-the-loop' but rather 'on-the-loop' – monitoring the execution of certain decisions. Simultaneously, advances in AI will enable systems to make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints without necessarily requiring human input".
In the next step, "SWARM technology will allow multiple MQ-Mb aircraft to cooperatively operate in a variety of lethal and non-lethal missions at the command of a single pilot". Such a move will require decisions being made by the swarm – human decision-making will be too slow and not able to react to the control of several aircraft at once. Machines will be left to make important decisions about target selection with a human only in executive control to send them in or call them off.
This is worrying because no autonomous robots or artificial intelligence systems have the necessary sensing properties to allow for discrimination between combatants and civilians, nor do they have the common sense reasoning capabilities to enable appropriate judgments about lethal force. It is unclear as to when such systems will exist, if at all. The technological developments needed for on-the-loop and autonomous UAVs are moving at a much faster pace. These may well be deployed as needs must, regardless of the discriminatory ability.
Allowing machines to make decisions about who to kill could fall foul of the fundamental ethical precepts of the laws of war under the principles of distinction and proportionality. It is clear that the international community needs to evaluate the use and implications of these increasingly versatile new weapons carrying systems as they stand now before venturing further into the unknown world of autonomous killing drones and before large-scale proliferation.