Tag Archives: kamikaze drones

Killer Robots: Your Kids V. Theirs

The harop, a kamikaze drone, bolts from its launcher like a horse out of the gates. But it is not built for speed, nor for a jockey. Instead it just loiters, unsupervised, too high for those on the battlefield below to hear the thin old-fashioned whine of its propeller, waiting for its chance.

Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) has been selling the Harop for more than a decade. A number of countries have bought the drone, including India and Germany. …In 2017, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri), a think-tank, the Harop was one of 49 deployed systems which could detect possible targets and attack them without human intervention. It is thus very much the sort of thing which disturbs the coalition of 89 non-governmental organisations (ngos) in 50 countries that has come together under the banner of the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots”.

The Phalanx guns used by the navies of America and its allies. Once switched on, the Phalanx will fire on anything it sees heading towards the ship it is mounted on. And in the case of a ship at sea that knows itself to be under attack by missiles too fast for any human trigger finger, that seems fair enough. Similar arguments can be made for the robot sentry guns in the demilitarised zone (dmz) between North and South Korea.

Autonomous vehicles do not have to become autonomous weapons, even when capable of deadly force. The Reaper drones with which America assassinates enemies are under firm human control when it comes to acts of violence, even though they can fly autonomously…. One of the advantages that MDBA, a European missile-maker, boasts for its air-to-ground Brimstones is that they can “self-sort” based on firing order. If different planes launch volleys of Brimstones into the same “kill box”, where they are free to do their worst, the missiles will keep tabs on each other to reduce the chance that two strike the same target.

Cost is also a factor in armies where trained personnel are pricey. “The thing about robots is that they don’t have pensions,”…If keeping a human in the loop was merely a matter of spending more, it might be deemed worthwhile regardless. But human control creates vulnerabilities. It means that you must pump a lot of encrypted data back and forth. What if the necessary data links are attacked physically—for example with anti-satellite weapons—jammed electronically or subverted through cyberwarfare? Future wars are likely to be fought in what America’s armed forces call “contested electromagnetic environments”. The Royal Air Force is confident that encrypted data links would survive such environments. But air forces have an interest in making sure there are still jobs for pilots; this may leave them prey to unconscious bias.

The vulnerability of communication links to interference is an argument for greater autonomy. But autonomous systems can be interfered with, too. The sensors for weapons like Brimstone need to be a lot more fly than those required by, say, self-driving cars, not just because battlefields are chaotic, but also because the other side will be trying to disorient them. Just as some activists use asymmetric make-up to try to confuse face-recognition systems, so military targets will try to distort the signatures which autonomous weapons seek to discern. Paul Scharre, author of “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War”, warns that the neural networks used in machine learning are intrinsically vulnerable to spoofing.

The 2017 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons has put together a group of governmental experts to study the finer points of autonomy. As well as trying to develop a common understanding of what weapons should be considered fully autonomous, it is considering both a blanket ban and other options for dealing with the humanitarian and security challenges that they create.  Most states involved in the convention’s discussions agree on the importance of human control. But they differ on what this actually means. In a paper for Article 36, an advocacy group named after a provision of the Geneva conventions that calls for legal reviews on new methods of warfare, Heather Roff and Richard Moyes argue that “a human simply pressing a ‘fire’ button in response to indications from a computer, without cognitive clarity or awareness” is not really in control. “Meaningful control”, they say, requires an understanding of the context in which the weapon is being used as well as capacity for timely and reasoned intervention. It also requires accountability…

The two dozen states that want a legally binding ban on fully autonomous weapons are mostly military minnows like Djibouti and Peru, but some members, such as Austria, have diplomatic sway. None of them has the sort of arms industry that stands to profit from autonomous weapons. They ground their argument in part on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a corpus built around the rules of war laid down in the Hague and Geneva conventions. This demands that armies distinguish between combatants and civilians, refrain from attacks where the risk to civilians outweighs the military advantage, use no more force than is proportional to the objective and avoid unnecessary suffering…Beyond the core group advocating a ban there is a range of opinions. China has indicated that it supports a ban in principle; but on use, not development. France and Germany oppose a ban, for now; but they want states to agree a code of conduct with wriggle room “for national interpretations”. India is reserving its position. It is eager to avoid a repeat of nuclear history, in which technological have-nots were locked out of game-changing weaponry by a discriminatory treaty.

At the far end of the spectrum a group of states, including America, Britain and Russia, explicitly opposes the ban. These countries insist that existing international law provides a sufficient check on all future systems….States are likely to sacrifice human control for self-preservation, says General Barrons. “You can send your children to fight this war and do terrible things, or you can send machines and hang on to your children.” Other people’s children are other people’s concern.

Excerpts from Briefing Autonomous Weapons: Trying to Restrain the Robots, Economist, Jan. 19, 2019, at 22

Kamikaze Drones: Shortening the Kill Chain

The 2-foot-long Switchblade drone [unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)] is so named because its wings fold into the fuselage for transport and spring out after launch. It is designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack and is fired from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, it begins sending back live video and GPS coordinates to a hand-held control set clutched by the soldier who launched it.  When soldiers identify and lock on a target, they send a command for the drone to nose-dive into it and detonate on impact. Because of the way it operates, the Switchblade has been dubbed the “kamikaze drone.”

The Obama administration, notably the CIA, has long been lambasted by critics for its use of combat drones and carelessly killing civilians in targeted strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. In 2010, a United Nations official said the CIA in Pakistan had made the United States “the most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world.

The Switchblade drone appears to be an improvement as an alternative to traditional drone strikes, in terms of minimizing civilian harm, but it also raises new concerns, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.  She pointed out that when a drone strike is being considered there are teams of lawyers, analysts and military personnel looking at the data to determine whether lethal force is necessary. But the Switchblade could shorten that “kill chain.”  “It delegates full responsibility to a lower-level soldier on the ground,” she said. “That delegation is worrisome. It’s a situation that could end up in more mistakes being made.”  Arms-control advocates also have concerns. As these small robotic weapons proliferate, they worry about what could happen if the drones end up in the hands of terrorists or other hostile forces.

The Switchblade “is symptomatic of a larger problem that U.S. military and aerospace companies are generating, which is producing various more exotic designs,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. “This technology is not always going to be in the sole possession of the U.S. and its allies. We need to think about the rules of the road for when and how these should be used so we can mitigate against unintended consequences.”

The Switchblade is assembled in Simi Valley by AeroVironment Inc., the Pentagon’s top supplier of small drones, which include the Raven, Wasp and Puma. More than 50 Switchblades will be sent to the war zone in Afghanistan this summer under a $10.1-million contract, which also includes the cost of repairs, spare parts, training and other expenses. Officials would not provide details about where the weapons would be used, how many were ordered and precisely when they would be deployed.  AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, developed the weapon on its own, thinking the military could use a lethal drone that could be made cheaply and deployed quickly by soldiers in the field, said company spokesman Steven Gitlin.

“It’s not inexpensive to task an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet from a base to take out an [improvised explosive device] team when you consider fuel, people, logistics support, etc.,” he said.

About a dozen Switchblades were tested last year by special operations units in Afghanistan, according to Army officials, who said the drone proved effective.  The Army is considering buying $100 million worth of the drones in a few years under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System, Nichols said. The Air Force and the Marine Corps have also expressed interest in the technology.

AeroVironment is not the only company pursuing small, lethal drones. Textron Defense Systems is also working on a small kamikaze-style drone. Named the BattleHawk Squad-Level Loitering Munition, the drone is being tested at an Army facility in New Mexico.

Excerpts, W.J. Hennigan, Pentagon to soon deploy pint-sized but lethal Switchblade drones, LA Times, June 11, 2012