Soon, Drones May Be Able to Make Lethal Decisions on Their Own

A NASA Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone aircraft, takes off during a Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel, or HS3, mission at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, on September 10, 2013.
National Journal
Joshua Foust, Defense One
Joshua Foust, Defense One
Oct. 8, 2013, 5:53 a.m.

Sci­ent­ists, en­gin­eers and poli­cy­makers are all fig­ur­ing out ways drones can be used bet­ter and more smartly, more pre­cise and less dam­aging to ci­vil­ians, with longer range and bet­ter stay­ing power. One meth­od un­der de­vel­op­ment is by in­creas­ing autonomy on the drone it­self.

Even­tu­ally, drones may have the tech­nic­al abil­ity to make even leth­al de­cisions autonom­ously: to re­spond to a pro­grammed set of in­puts, se­lect a tar­get and fire their weapons without a hu­man re­view­ing or check­ing the res­ult. Yet the idea of the U.S. mil­it­ary de­ploy­ing a leth­al autonom­ous ro­bot, or LAR, is spark­ing con­tro­versy. Though autonomy might ad­dress some of the cur­rent down­sides of how drones are used, they in­tro­duce new down­sides poli­cy­makers are only just learn­ing to grapple with.

The ba­sic con­ceit be­hind a LAR is that it can out­per­form and out­think a hu­man op­er­at­or. “If a drone’s sys­tem is soph­ist­ic­ated enough, it could be less emo­tion­al, more se­lect­ive and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tac­tic­al ob­ject­ive with the least harm,” said Purdue Uni­versity Pro­fess­or Samuel Liles. “A leth­al autonom­ous ro­bot can aim bet­ter, tar­get bet­ter, se­lect bet­ter, and in gen­er­al be a bet­ter as­set with the linked ISR [in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and re­con­nais­sance] pack­ages it can run.”

Though the pace for drone strikes has slowed down — only 21 have struck Pakistan in 2013, versus 122 in 2010 ac­cord­ing to the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion — un­manned vehicles re­main a staple of the Amer­ic­an coun­ter­insur­gency toolkit. But drones have built-in vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies that mil­it­ary plan­ners still have not yet grappled with. Last year, for ex­ample, an aerospace en­gin­eer told the House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee that with some in­ex­pens­ive equip­ment he could hack in­to a drone and hi­jack it to per­form some rogue pur­pose.

Drones have been hack­able for years. In 2009, de­fense of­fi­cials told re­port­ers that Ir­a­ni­an-backed mi­li­tias used $26 of off-the-shelf soft­ware to in­ter­cept the video feeds of drones fly­ing over Ir­aq. And in 2011, it was re­por­ted that a vir­us had in­fec­ted some drone con­trol sys­tems at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, lead­ing to se­cur­ity con­cerns about the se­cur­ity of un­manned air­craft.

It may be that the only way to make a drone truly se­cure is to al­low it to make its own de­cisions without a hu­man con­trol­ler: if it re­ceives no out­side com­mands, then it can­not be hacked (at least as eas­ily). And that’s where LARs, might be the most at­tract­ive.

Though they do not yet ex­ist, and are not pos­sible with cur­rent tech­no­logy, LARs are the sub­ject of fierce de­bate in aca­demia, the mil­it­ary and policy circles. Still, many treat their de­vel­op­ment as in­ev­it­ab­il­ity. But how prac­tic­al would LARs be on the bat­tle­field?

Heath­er Roff, a vis­it­ing pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Den­ver, said many con­flicts, such as the civil war in Syr­ia, are too com­plex for LARs. “It’s one thing to use them in a con­ven­tion­al con­flict,” where large mil­it­ar­ies fight away from cit­ies, “but we tend to fight asym­met­ric battles. And in­ter­ven­tions are only mil­it­ary cam­paigns — the ci­vil­ian ef­fects mat­ter.”

Roff says that be­cause LARs are not soph­ist­ic­ated enough to mean­ing­fully dis­tin­guish between ci­vil­ians and mil­it­ants in a com­plex, urb­an en­vir­on­ment, they prob­ably would not be ef­fect­ive at achiev­ing a con­struct­ive mil­it­ary end— if only be­cause of how a ci­vil­ian pop­u­la­tion would likely re­act to self-gov­ern­ing ma­chines fir­ing weapons at their city. “The idea that you could solve that crisis with a ro­bot­ic weapon is naïve and dan­ger­ous,” she said.

Any autonom­ous weapons sys­tem is un­likely to be used by the mil­it­ary, ex­cept in ex­traordin­ary cir­cum­stances, ar­gued Will Mc­Cants, a fel­low at the Brook­ings Saban Cen­ter and dir­ect­or of its pro­ject on U.S. Re­la­tions with the Is­lam­ic World. “You could ima­gine a scen­ario,” he says, “in which LAR planes hunted sur­face-to-air mis­siles as part of a cam­paign to des­troy Syr­ia’s air de­fenses.” It would re­move the risk to U.S. pi­lots while ex­clus­ively tar­get­ing war equip­ment that has no ci­vil­ian pur­pose.

But such a cam­paign is un­likely to ever hap­pen. “Ul­ti­mately, the na­tion­al se­cur­ity staff,” he said, re­fer­ring to per­son­nel that make up the of­fi­cials and ad­visers of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, “does not want to give up con­trol of the con­flict.” The polit­ics of the de­cision to de­ploy any kind of autonom­ous weaponry mat­ters as much as the cap­ab­il­ity of the tech­no­logy it­self. “With an autonom­ous sys­tem, the con­sequences of fail­ure are worse in the pub­lic’s mind. There’s something about hu­man er­ror that makes people more com­fort­able with col­lat­er­al dam­age if a per­son does it,” Mc­Cants said.

That’s not to say any­one is truly com­fort­able with col­lat­er­al dam­age. “They’d rather own these kinds of de­cisions them­selves and be able to chalk it up to hu­man er­ror,” Mc­Cants said. Polit­ic­al is­sues aside, B.J. Strawser, as­sist­ant pro­fess­or at the Nav­al Post­gradu­ate School, says that LARs simply could not be used ef­fect­ively in a place like Syr­ia. “You’d need ex­ceed­ingly care­ful and re­strict­ive ROEs [rules of en­gage­ment], and I worry that any­one could carry that out ef­fect­ive, autonom­ous weapon or not,” he said.

“I don’t think any act­or, hu­man or not, is cap­able of car­ry­ing out the re­fined, pre­cise ROEs that would en­able an armed in­ter­ven­tion to be help­ful in Syr­ia.”

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