Tag Archives: laws of war

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

Naming the Dead in the CIA Drone War

Naming the Dead is a project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit research organisation based in London. The project aims to identify those killed in CIA drone strikes on Pakistan.  Over the past nine years, the tribal region of Pakistan’s north west has been hit by hundreds of drone attacks as the CIA has sought to stamp out al Qaeda fighters and the militant groups that have given them shelter.  Missiles launched from these high-tech, unmanned aircraft have hit homes, cars, schools, shops and gatherings. At least 2,500 people have been killed, according to data already collected by the Bureau as part of our wider Covert Drone War research.

Senior US officials have described drones as highly precise weapons that target and kill enemies of the US. John Brennan, who oversaw the development of the drone campaign and is now director of the CIA, has called drone technology an ‘essential tool’ for its ‘surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.’

Those killed by drones include high-ranking militant leaders – figures such as Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s feared second-in-command, or Baitullah Mehsud, commander of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  But according to credible media reports analysed by the Bureau, the dead also include at least 400 civilians. Some were unlucky enough to be nearby when militants were attacked. Others were killed alongside their husbands or fathers, who were believed to be militants. Still others were mistaken for terrorists by drone operators sitting thousands of miles away.

In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.  For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.

Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.  In the future, the Bureau aims to identify more of the dead on a regular basis, and to uncover more details of those who have been killed. Where possible we will provide further identification – where they were killed, and their occupations, full names and ages. In the remote areas of Pakistan where drone strikes take place, official identification is rare. Few people possess identification cards, birth certificates, or even documents recording their relatives’ deaths. But wherever possible this project will provide documentation recording a person’s death.

Photographs of the destruction of a particular site are included in the database. Affidavits, photos, hospital records, student identification and transcripts of interviews with researchers are all provided when available. Over time, the Bureau aims to build on such currently scarce records in an attempt to properly scrutinise the little that is reported, and the claims being made – on all sides.

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Secret Info: 94 kids killed by US drones in Pakistan

A secret document obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism  reveals for the first time the Pakistan government’s internal assessment of dozens of drone strikes, and shows scores of civilian casualties.  The United States has consistently claimed only a tiny number of non-combatants have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan – despite research by the Bureau and others suggesting that over 400 civilians may have died in the nine-year campaign.

The internal document shows Pakistani officials too found that CIA drone strikes were killing a significant number of civilians – and have been aware of those deaths for many years.  Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes outlined in the document, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.

The confidential 12-page summary paper, titled Details of Attacks by Nato Forces/Predators in FATA was prepared by government officials in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  Based on confidential reports from a network of government agents in the field, it outlines 75 separate CIA drone strikes between 2006 and late 2009 and provides details of casualties in many of the attacks. Five attacks alleged to be carried out by Nato or other unspecified forces are also listed.

The numbers recorded are much higher than those provided by the US administration, which continues to insist that no more than 50 to 60 ‘non-combatants’ have been killed by the CIA across the entire nine years of Pakistan bombings. New CIA director John Brennan has described claims to the contrary as ‘intentional misrepresentations‘.  The document shows that during the 2006-09 period covered, when Pakistan’s government and military were privately supporting the CIA’s campaign, officials had extensive internal knowledge of high civilian casualties.

Excerpt, Chris Woods, Exclusive: Leaked Pakistani report confirms high civilian death toll in CIA drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 22, 2013

Hunter and Killer Drones

The Pentagon is discussing the possibility of replacing human drone operators with computer algorithms, especially for ‘signature strikes‘ where unknown targets are killed simply because they meet certain criteria. So what characteristics define an ‘enemy combatant’ and where are they outlined in law?

Drone strikes and targeted killings have become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in their ongoing war against terrorists. But what impact is this technology having, not only on those who are the targets (both intended and unintended), but on the way we are likely to wage war in the future?

John Sifton is the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, and says that while drones are currently controlled remotely by trained military personnel, there are already fears that the roving killing machines could be automated in the future.  ‘One of the biggest concerns human rights groups have right now is the notion of a signature strike,’ he says. ‘[This is] the notion that you could make a decision about a target based on its appearance. Say—this man has a Kalashnikov, he’s walking on the side of the road, he is near a military base. He’s a combatant, let’s kill him. That decision is made by a human right now, but the notion that you could write an algorithm for that and then program it into a drone… sounds science fiction but is in fact what the Pentagon is already thinking about. There are already discussions about this, autonomous weapons systems.’‘That is to human rights groups the most terrifying spectre that is currently presented by the drones.’

Sarah Knuckey is the director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University Law School and an advisor to the UN. She says the way that drones are used to conduct warfare is stretching the limits of previous international conventions and is likely to require new rules of engagement to be drawn up…The rules of warfare built up after World War II to protect civilians are already hopelessly outdated, she says. The notion of border sovereignty has already been trashed by years of drone strikes, which she estimates have targeted upwards of 3,000 individuals, with reports of between 400 and 800 civilian casualties.

Excerpt from Annabelle Quince, Future of drone strikes could see execution by algorithm, May 21, 2013

Lethal Operations Against US Citizens Lawful: secret memo

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes….The undated memo is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” It was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June by administration officials on the condition that it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.

Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly — or even publicly confirm their existence. A source with access to the white paper, which is not classified, provided a copy to NBC News.

“This is a chilling document,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which is suing to obtain administration memos about the targeted killing of Americans. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”…..

The completeness of the administration’s public accounts of its legal arguments was also sharply criticized last month by U.S. Judge Colleen McMahon in response to a lawsuit brought by the New York Times and the ACLU seeking access to the Justice Department memos on drone strikes targeting Americans under the Freedom of Information Act. McMahon, describing herself as being caught in a “veritable Catch-22,” said she was unable to order the release of the documents given “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for the conclusion a secret.”  In her ruling, McMahon noted that administration officials “had engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens.” But, she wrote, they have done so “in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing … any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.”……..

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” the white paper reads. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

Excerpts from Michael Isikoff. EXCLUSIVE: Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans, NBC News, Feb. 6, 2012

What is the High Energy Liquid Laser?

Enemy surface-to-air threats to manned and unmanned aircraft have become increasingly sophisticated, creating a need for rapid and effective response to this growing category of threats. High power lasers can provide a solution to this challenge, as they harness the speed and power of light to counter multiple threats. Laser weapon systems provide additional capability for offensive missions as well—adding precise targeting with low probability of collateral damage. For consideration as a weapon system on today’s air assets though, these laser weapon systems must be lighter and more compact than the state-of-the-art has produced.

The goal of the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) program is to develop a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system that is ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, enabling integration onto tactical aircraft to defend against and defeat ground threats. With a weight goal of less than five kilograms per kilowatt, and volume of three cubic meters for the laser system, HELLADS seeks to enable high-energy lasers to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems.

The program has completed laboratory testing of a fundamental building block for HELLADS, a single laser module that successfully demonstrated the ability to achieve high power and beam quality from a significantly lighter and smaller laser. The program is now in the final development phase where a second laser module will be built and combined with the first module to generate 150 kW of power.

The plan is for the laser to be transported to White Sands Missile Range for ground testing against rockets, mortars, surface-to-air missiles and to conduct simulated air-to-ground offensive missions.

High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS)

Torture in Afghanistan: following the master

The UN report (2013), titled “Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody,” offered a grim tour of Afghanistan’s detention facilities, where even adolescents have reported abuse like beatings with hoses and pipes and threats of sodomy.

In the case of the intelligence service, the United Nations reported a lower incidence of torture. But it was not clear whether that finding reflected improved behavior as much as it did a decrease in the number of detainees handed over to the intelligence service by the international military coalition. And some detainees have alluded to new secret interrogation centers.

The Afghan government rejected the report’s specific allegations but said that there were some abuses, and that it had taken numerous steps to improve the treatment of detainees. The government gave United Nations officials access to those held in all but one detention facility.Among the questions raised by the report is whether the pervasiveness of torture will make it difficult for the American military to hand over those being held in the Parwan Detention Facility, also known as Bagram Prison, as required under the agreement reached last week in Washington between President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.  The United Nations did not look at the Parwan Detention Facility, in part because it is not yet wholly under Afghan control….

After a United Nations report on torture in 2011, the international coalition suspended transfers of battlefield detainees to 16 Afghan detention sites. ISAF resumed transfers to most of those centers after certifying that they were complying with human rights protocols. Then, in October 2012, the coalition received new reports of torture and abuse and halted some of the transfers that it had restarted only months before, the United Nations report said. The United Nations has briefed ISAF at several points in the course of its research, which included interviews with more than 600 detainees as well as employees of the Afghan intelligence service, the Afghan police, judges and prosecutors….The Afghan government’s 20-page response, which is included in the United Nations report, rejected all specific allegations, including “beating with rubber pipes or water pipes, forced confession, suspension, twisting of the detainees’ penises and wrenching of the detainees’ testicles, death threats, sexual abuse and child abuse.”

ALISSA J. RUBIN, Anti-Torture Efforts in Afghanistan Failed, U.N. Says, NY Times, Jan. 20, 2012

See also Convention against Torture