In relation to autonomous weapon systems, how much human control is ‘meaningful’? 

This week we consider what level of human control over killer robots is meaningful. This has been a topic of great discussion at the UN as part of the deliberations about whether or not these systems should be banned. Indeed, Paul Scharre has just written an interesting blog on this very subject, see here. 

 

Here’s what we think: 

 

It’s great that this question should come up on TTAC21 as it’s something I’m particularly interested in at the moment. From my position, human control isn’t really very ‘meaningful’ and hasn’t been for a long time. If anything drone pilots don’t so much represent a lack of control so much as highlighting for us the lack of control, or lack of human agency, that’s been present in the military for a very long time. I mean even go so far back as the Second World War and already technology was starting to take over many of the duties of actually ‘waging war’. Skip on a few years and you get to the nuclear bomb, wherein one single individual ‘presses the button’, though in reality the decision to use the bomb was made many years before and by a great many people. At what point is the single decision to press the red button meaningful? I argue not at all, if the weapon exists alongside the common will to use it. If not pilot A pressing the button, then the military can simply send pilot B or pilot C. And while we’re at it, we better make sure it lands where we tell it to. Better get a machine to do the job… 

 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 

This question really is an important one. Despite studying international law, perhaps it is more important than the legal questions over AWS. I think the approach which Paul Scharre suggests, that if we had a technologically perfect autonomous weapon system what role would we still want humans to play is a great one. I think it is the question which will lead the international community towards whatever answer they come to in relation to meaningful human control. 

For me, I’m coming to the conclusion that unless an instance of combat is of a high intensity and military personnel from your own side or civilians are going to die without immediate action and the speed of decision-making that only an AWS will have, then it would always be preferable to have a human overseeing lethal decisions, if not actually making them. Whilst the legal arguments can be made convincingly for both no automation and full automation of lethal decision-making, I cautiously argue that where technology has the required capabilities then lethal decision-making by an AWS could be lawful. Ethically however, I would prefer a higher standard which would include humans in the decision-making process. But, ethically desirable is more than ‘meaningful’ and this is why I think Scharre has gotten the jump on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots; reaching a ‘meaningful’ level of human involvement is a minimum threshold, but ethically desirable can go as high as anybody wants. Of course, this then makes it harder to discuss and so may tied up the CCW discussions for longer – although I hope it will be worth it. 

For me, ‘meaningful’ comes down to a human deciding that characteristics XYZ make an individual worthy of targeting. In an international armed conflict, that might be them wearing the uniform of an adversary. In a non-international armed conflict, it may be that they have acted in such a way to make them an adversary (I.e. directly participating in hostilities). But, that human decision can still be pre-determined and later executed by a machine. The temporal and physical distance does not alter the decision that XYZ characteristics mean that the potential target becomes a definitive target. Others will disagree with my conception of ‘meaningful’, and I hope it will generate discussion, but this is also why I favour Scharre’s method of moving forward. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Krieg and Rickli – Surrogate warfare: the art of war in the 21st century?

This week we are looking at the topic of Surrogate Warfare in an article by Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli. The article is available here. The piece covers ideas of surrogacy in warfare thorugh all sorts of interesting means, from mercenaries and militias to drones and satellites. We hope you enjoy the article. Let us know what you think in the comments. 

 


In this article, the authors note the modern tendency towards ‘surrogate warfare’, in which States externalise the burden of war in order to distance themselves from the violence exercised by their surrogates (5). While the authors argue that surrogate warfare is ‘probably not the panacea for fighting wars in the twenty-first century’ (15), they do concede that surrogate warfare is going to become more common as risks and conflicts are not likely to recede any time soon (15). 

I found this article interesting, though somewhat lacking in analysis, and I was left wondering how much of it is really ‘new’. Furthermore, I struggle to find the actual argument put forward by the authors who focus primarily on explaining what surrogate warfare is, and why it’s so prevalent. They don’t propose any solutions, nor even any remedies or genuine responses – or even make a sufficiently strong case as to why surrogate warfare might be a bad thing. Surrogate warfare may not be the panacea, but then the world is a very different place to it was in the time of Carl von Clausewitz. 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


I thought this article was a little misplaced, in that whilst it was really interesting it did not seem to fit well as an academic journal article. As it gives a very thorough overview of states using surrogates in their acts of war, it seemed that this would be a better fit for a textbook chapter. I struggled to find anything that felt truly ‘new’ in this article, it felt as though a history lesson on state use of mercenaries and militias was being put together with some thoughts on modern warfare technologies and PMC’s and given a gloss of conceptual paint under the term ‘surrogate warfare’. I’m sure this would be really interesting to scholars of security and war studies who want a new perspective spin linking current conceptions of PMC’s to historical views of mercenaries, but it didn’t really chime with me in any way. That said, if I were teaching on mercenaries and PMC’s, I would definitely recommend this to my students as a primer document full of great information. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Morgan – The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today

This week we are considering ‘The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today’ by Patrick M. Morgan (2012, Contemporary Security Policy, 33:1, 85-107). It considers how deterrence and deterrence theory has changed since the cold war, and how it could be revived in some ways to deter future conflicts.

Here’s what we thought:


In this long and detailed article published in 2012, the author asks ‘What does deterrence, in theory and practice, look like now?’ As there is just so much content in this article, I thought I’d highlight one particular passage that interests me. In it, the author suggests:

‘there is an alliance among democracies, whether explicit or not, involving a semi-automatic extended deterrence. Numerous adjustments in thinking about security are required to encompass the complications this entails.’ (94)

Naturally, there are several issues with ‘Collective Actor Deterrence’, and the author does explore them. But I wonder, what does everyone think about this notion? Does the concept hold water in 2018? Especially given there seems to be a political reluctance to sufficiently enforce sanctions and threats, leading to a credibility gap between what international State actors say, and what they do.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


The article reviews the state of deterrence anno 2012, in both the academic and policy world, and discusses to what extent it has changed since the Cold War. The fact it was written in 2012 must be kept in mind, as the article is a little bit dated. The security environment has changed substantially to a more “traditional” and state-oriented environment since 2012. I would be curious to see an updated version of the article, and what these developments meant for the author’s conceptualisation of deterrence. I appreciate how the author views the subject of deterrence not merely through realist glasses, as most of the literature does. This allowed for a broad conceptualisation of deterrence and its influences. For instance, his inclusion of non-realist determinants of the ‘national interest’ was a welcome contribution to the literature on deterrence.

I would have appreciated it if the article was a bit more systematic though. Perhaps the article was too short (as it seems like it was an attempt to condense the author’s 2009 book on deterrence in an article), but I missed a sharp definition of what deterrence was; a systematic method to analyse historical changes; and structurally distinguishing between academic research, foreign policy; and the meta-level analysis beyond both policy and academic work on deterrence. Instead the article a non-structured narrative, that makes the analysis seem ad hoc, mentioning different characteristics of the contemporary security environment but staying at such a surface level that nothing really new or meaningful is said.

Because of the non-systematic analysis, the concept of deterrence gets stretched significantly. While I understand that the point of the author is to explain how the nature of deterrence has changed, I feel that if you want to call military intervention to halt human rights violations deterrence, you really need to justify your choices about what deterrence is, why you choose that definition, and why certain behaviour falls under deterrence. Otherwise you risk that the concept of deterrence becomes meaningless. Furthermore, if the point is to describe how

deterrence has developed over time and how the concept has now expanded, the article needs a more in-depth consideration of the historical nature of non-nuclear forms of deterrence, non-superpower deterrence and pre-Cold War deterrence policies. Are the contemporary forms of deterrence truly unique now, or have they always been here, and was the Anglo-Saxon IR literature perhaps preoccupied with nuclear weapons and superpowers with little eye for other forms of deterrence?

The literature on deterrence is so interesting to me, both due to the subject of deterrence, but also on a meta-level, as the academic literature has played such a pivotal role on foreign policy (e.g. Thomas Schelling), and the political views of the authors (from various camps) shine through in their analysis. The author did not really touch the academic and policy interplay significantly, nor debated where the changing attitudes about deterrence come from. This is a shame, especially as deterrence is all about perception, belief, and conventional narratives. It is about convincing an adversary that you are willing them to strike in such a way that it would be foolish for the adversary to attack. But it follows a certain logic, and if an adversary does not believe in that logic, it makes your policy less powerful. So what makes actors believe in that logic or not? What made this paradigm fall out of fashion? And what has changed that that logic is no longer as prevalent, neither in academia nor in policy (anno 2012)? I would have loved to see such meta-level reflections from the author in this paper. Now only how has deterrence changed, but a bit more critical reflection on why it has changed, besides changes in the security environment. However, it is possible that the author expands more on this in their book.

Maaike Verbruggen,Vrije Universiteit Brussel


What does deterrence look like today in both theory and practice? This is the fundamental question Morgan sets out to address throughout the course of this paper. The author draws some useful parallels between pre- and post-Cold War deterrence thinking whilst also highlighting key divergences. Morgan underlines contextual shifts that are shaping contemporary deterrence such as expanding normative constraints on the use of force, the shifting nature of threats and continuous technological change. But contrary to common assertions that such contextual shifts render deterrence inadequate for addressing contemporary security challenges, Morgan sees this as a flawed outlook and moves to highlight that deterrence, rather than becoming inadequate, has become more complex but remains relevant. An important point made here is that deterrence in international politics must be adjusted to accommodate major shifts in the regional and global international systems – but doing so is fraught with challenges. As Morgan puts it: “We are reshaping an important recourse for maintaining international order even as that order is itself being refashioned; we are altering our tools while we build on the run” (p. 86). For me, this echoes the type of dilemmas we are seeing across the board in relation to defence and security issues; where this element of not being able to keep up with the pace of change somewhat cripples our abilities to make meaningful progress in tackling certain challenges.

An interesting point Morgan touches on in this regard is the ability for opponents to design around traditional modes of deterrence (p. 86). The idea of designing around deterrence in order to eschew it seems particularly relevant to today’s security environment as we see

rapidly evolving threats, blurred thresholds of tolerance and hostile grey zone activity by increasingly assertive state actors. Whilst these issues do indeed make deterrence more complex, they also highlight again the vulnerabilities and potential inadequacies of current approaches to deterrence. The rapidity of technological innovation in unison with the types of challenges necessitates fresh thinking on deterrence to bridge vulnerability gaps and mitigate the ability for actors to ‘design around’ deterrence strategies. Deciding what, when and how to deter is constantly becoming more complex as new challenges – often underpinned by technological innovation – emerge. In this sense, it seems as though deterrence thinking/strategies themselves must also become more multifaceted, adaptive and innovative – even hybrid (not dissimilar traits to the threats it seeks to deter) in order to be credible in today’s security environment. I think this is an enormous challenge, not only in terms of understanding, recognising and deciding which of the multidimensional threats we face today would be responsive to deterrence, but also in terms of confronting the remaining inertia surrounding Cold War deterrence thinking in order to move firmly away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University


I liked Morgan’s paper, and thought it really interesting. I have been thinking about deterrence from an international law perspective for a little while. We usually think of the international law rules on the use of force as being a deterrent as no state really wants to be seen breaking them and be labelled an aggressor. But, we’ve seen a lot of breaches of those rules since 1945, without much damage to any state aggressors. So, perhaps public international law doesn’t have a strong deterrent facet.

However, as a large number of recent conflicts have involved non-state actors, and their wrongful acts are usually dealt with under international criminal law (ICL), I have been wondering whether ICL could have a deterrent effect not in the same terms we see domestic criminal law hopefully deterring criminality, but more in terms of deterring large-scale violence and insurgency. If ICL can deter this, it can essentially deter violent conflicts with non-state actors. Although the threat of prison can deter criminals, violent non-state actors are willing to die for their cause, and so the threat of prison may not impact them quite so much. Hopefully, I’ll get round to carrying out this research.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

 


Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Sari – Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law

This week marks the start of a reduction in output for TTAC21. After about a year of work from all of us, it has become apparent that the 4 or 5 pieces each month that we were reviewing can take up a bit more time that would be ideal. So, we are switching down to 2 or 3. If you have previously been put off joining the network by the number of readings, but are now interested just send us an email. All are welcome.

Now, onto our reviews. We are again looking at hybrid warfare, or hybrid threat. Following on from the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and some other questionable deaths of Russia ex-pats, in the UK the hybrid threat issue has remerged after a flurry of interest during the Crimean crisis of 2014. Prior to this recent increase in interest, Aurel Sari wrote ‘Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law‘. It is a consideration of how international law can be used as a counter to hybrid warfare, and hybrid threats, and how it should go about being used.

Here’s what we thought. If you’ve got anything you would like to say about it, just pop it in the comments box below.


The 2018 paper, ‘Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law’, recognises an important need to re-engage with the politics of international law to prevail in, what Sari describes as, ‘the current strategic environment’.  Sari argues that such an environment exists as a result of the blurred lines between what is legally described as war and peace. These blurred lines are being used in the manipulation of legal concepts and thresholds in order to disguise violations of international law.  Although this article recognises a valid problem in international law, I have grave concerns with the proposed solution to this problem; ‘Western nations and institutions’ are called upon to save the international legal order against, what Sari repeatedly refers to as, the ‘adversaries and competitors’.

The reader is reminded of Russia’s 2014 ‘brazen violation of international law’ in its intervention in Crimea. There is also mention of the maritime activities of China that do not coincide with the West’s concept of international order. Other than Russia and China, it is not clear exactly who else comes under the classification of ‘adversaries and competitors’. Do all non-Western nations and institutions come within this classification? Surely not, as the inherent problems of such an ethnocentric view are obvious.

It is also not clear how Sari has come to the conclusion that it is only the ‘Western nations and institutions’ that can act as the saviours of the international order. Whilst reading this article, I felt an unease with the running theme of colonial-era thinking that only the West matters. The article makes the assumption that it is the West that are the only ones who are qualified ‘to promote their vision of international order’ (emphasis added). However, Western nations and institutions are not immune from exploiting international law or acquiescing in such exploitations. We only have to look at the US-led operation in Syria against Daesh and the invocation of the ‘unwilling or unable’ doctrine by various states to see how international laws can be strategically manipulated for a states’ advantage.

Positioning the West against the rest of the world under, what looks a lot like, an ‘us v. them’ paradigm, is not the solution to the ‘current strategic environment’. The international order is an order that governs all states. If we are to take measures to prevent the abuse of international law, then we need all states to be involved in this process – not just the states and institutions from the West.

Jasmin Nessa, University of Liverpool


In this article, Aurel Sari examines increasing ‘instrumentalisation’ of law to achieve political ends, citing examples such as the Russian ‘intervention’ in Crimea. In response to the instrumentalisation of law, the author calls for concrete measures in three distinct areas: legal preparedness, legal resilience and deterrence, and legal defence. While the author focusses primarily on legal approaches to political problems, he unfortunately lacks political insights into what is a difficult and complex challenge. The biggest weakness here is that the author fails to suggest any meaningful solution to the question of international relations between States that often lack the political and/or military desire to act on threats of action against those States that act unlawfully.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I really enjoyed this article, and think the problem of the blurred lines of hybrid threats and the politics of international law are extremely important subjects, and serious threats to present-day international institutions. I especially appreciated the solution-oriented thinking, although I wish the author expanded a bit more on how to achieve the proposed solutions, as those are not easy endeavours. I agree with what the author said, so I will not spend too much time criticising their opinion. Instead, I will focus on the big glaring omission of the article: Western blurred lines.

The article overwhelmingly discusses threats to international law by adversaries to the West, and how the West should respond to uphold international law. Kosovo and Iraq are mentioned somewhere in a sub-clause, but Western actions are otherwise barely considered. This is problematic, as Western countries have always also promoted a certain flavour of international law that is in their own interests, and have violated international law when it suited them. Consider many arms control treaties, devised in a way so the West does not lose its military advantageous position; the questionable status of nuclear sharing under the NPT; the lack of respect for international law when going to war in Iraq; or the fact that Israel is the lawfare pioneer par excellence. When will we see accountability for torture in Guantanamo or political follow-up on the Chilcott report? It reminded me of a recent interview where NYT journalist Jim Rutenberg claimed that Russian interference in US elections was bad, but US interference in other regimes is very different, as it is for the greater good. The cognitive dissonance is striking.

It is completely right to question the practices of Russia in Crimea, or Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. I whole-heartedly agree that they are serious threats to international institutions as a whole. But one should not be blind for the actions of the West, and pretend there is no politics behind which countries and practices they consider problematic and which they do not. Western countries violate or (ab)use international law too, which is also a threat. I promise you that many countries in the Global South certainly do not see the West as firm protectors of international law. Furthermore, the selective outrage against Russia, China or Syria, but not against the USA or Israel, weakens the credibility of Western accusations. This janus-face risks that valid accusations about horrendous acts of chemical warfare in Syria are perceived as just another political stick to hit Russia with. This perception is extremely dangerous, as it leads to disillusionment and makes it significantly harder to restore respect for international law, which is urgently needed.

Dr Aurel Sari mentions three countermeasures against the threats to international law: strengthening legal preparedness, legal resilience and deterrence, and the capability for legal defence. I would thus add a fourth: More self-reflection and accountability for one’s own actions, and lead by example.

Against this proposal I can already hear the criticism: You are so naive. You are hypocritical, only criticising the West ignoring Russia and China. The West is so much better, and Western self-critique harms our global position Against that I have the following to say: (1) I agree with the basic premises of the article, but the omission of Western actions really weakens the argument, so that is what I comment on. It inaccurately represents reality. (2) It is rather concerning that in the current political climate the debate has become so polarised and black-and-white that questioning the established narrative leads to accusations of Russia-apologia. Disapproval of Western actions are not the same as approval of Russian actions. Russia is an authoritarian regime that violates international law and human rights. This does not mean they are an evil mastermind plotting the breakdown of the Western order and international institutions as a whole. The debate on information warfare has become completely hysterical, and seriously lacks self-reflection and taking responsibility. It is easier to pretend that Russia rigged your various elections and referenda than to admit how xenophobic or racist your population is, or that there might be a reason why your population is so disillusioned with its government. (3) I honestly believe it will strengthen Western arguments against violations of international law if they were known to be more accountable and self-reflexive themselves. It would strengthen international norms, increase credibility and remove ammunition against them, so this advice would thus actually be beneficial to them. (4) My advice is also not limited to Western countries. I wish all countries were more self-reflexive and

accountable. That said (5), I am Western, writing for a Western audience, from a democratic country with freedom of the press. I can affect Western policy a lot easier than I can affect Syrian policy. I think it is a natural phenomenon to be the most critical of one’s own country or community. I know it the best, and care about it. Misdoings bother me especially because I think we can do better, and because I want my community to uphold my personal values.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussel  


This article aims to highlight the growing necessity for the West to re-engage with the politics of international law in the face of adversarial subversive activities that breach, challenge and threaten the integrity of legal systems. The author discusses the “instrumentalisation” of law: the use of law by adversaries and competitors as a tool to augment diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence activities. What I found most interesting in this piece was that in order to confront these challenges of instrumentalisation, the author goes on to outline steps that themselves somewhat resonate with this notion of instrumentalising law; albeit in a less subversive fashion. It is suggested that Western states must put in place “…processes and capabilities to deny adversaries the benefits of using law as an asymmetric lever of influence.” (p. 6). Whilst mitigating Western legal vulnerabilities is, of course, essential – looking at this a little differently, does not creating and placing such processes and capabilities of denial (if underpinned by legal frameworks) amount to using law as an asymmetric lever of influence too, just in a different way?

There seems to be an underlying paradox associated with responding to/challenging adversarial breaches that is quite interesting to explore. It comes back to the idea of ‘lawfare’ – using/misusing law as a means to achieve an operational objective, but for me it also hints at a subtle overlap between the use and misuse of legal systems through the act of manipulation. Whether that is the manipulation of legal thresholds by hostile actors or the manipulation of legal systems and frameworks to mitigate these new threats through creating processes/capabilities of denial. This article consequently raised interesting thoughts for me about law and legal systems as simply extensions of the battlefield. Sari sums this up well when suggesting that Western states should acknowledge that “…law is a domain of competition, just like the land, maritime, air, information and cyber domains…”(p. 5); highlighting that law can be weaponised, manipulated and harnessed as an instrument to serve strategic advantages just as other domains more traditionally associated with war can. The lingering thought this paper left me with is: in order to prevent the erosion of legal integrity, how do Western states go about utilising law in such a way as to not inadvertently mirror the “instrumentalisation” of the law that we seek to confront?

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University.


I thought this piece brought a few interesting points together. Of course, as it is a policy paper, it is not very long and suffers a lack of detail as a result. But, it still gets the points across. I like Sari’s ideas of strengthening legal preparedness, resilience and deterrence, and capability for legal defence. But, all of this does beg the question whether Western nations defending a Western-dominated international order is because they want to retain the powerbase of international law, or because they want to defend something that usually works for most nations from other nations that want to subvert the global legal order for their own ends? There are also issues of whether Russia, China and other powers are trying to change the international legal order for their own ends, or to make it a more diverse and multi-polar system that represents and works for all people equally well, in the face of a Western-dominated history? I’m not really sure if international law has the tools to deal with this question, most of the international lawyers I know consider the extent of different perspectives that are worthwhile pursuing to be positivism v. natural law. Yet, if we turn to international relations theory, it turns into a classic realist v. liberalist debate. I guess this is a situation whereby there are no clear answers. Yet, it does seem that from a Western perspective, Russ and China are playing to win when it comes to International law.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think!

Shaw – Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age

Here’s our second article under discussion this month, Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age by Ian Shaw. This work follows on from his great book Predator Empire, which is not only a well argued piece on the technology-based containment of the globe by the US, but also includes magnificent accounts of the history of target killing amongst other things.

 

 Here’s what we thought of his article: 


This reading group has been going for almost nine months now, and in that time it’s fair to say we’ve read a fair bit on drone warfare and autonomous weapons. From all of our reading thus far, I’m not sure that this article actually says anything specifically new about the field, or indeed offers any sort of radical insight. As is typical for a piece grounded (forgive the pun) in the Geographical and Earth Sciences, the paper is awash with ‘topographies’ and ‘spaces’, and yet all of this when drone warfare has been around for quite some time. And of course, let us not forget that battlefields are constantly shifting spaces, and this is not the first shift in the ‘landscape’ of warfare, as the invention of the tank, the aeroplane and the submarine have already gone to show. In this sense then, I’m not really sure how much this paper is adding to our understanding of drones, or drone warfare – nor indeed empire and geopolitics.  

The one thing I did find interesting however, in a non-TTAC21 specific context, was this notion of robots as ‘existential actors’ (455), and autonomy then as an ‘ontological condition’. Again, though I don’t think this is anything new per se, I find it interesting that now we are starting to see a shift in the language around drones, as other disciplines are slowly getting to grips with the impact of drones on our conception of space and the relationship between the human and the machine.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


I thought this article was interesting, and I liked to reconceptualization of various aspects of targeted killing, modern war, and robotic conflict into abstract geopolitical ideas. However, The part I found most interesting was Shaw’s use of Deleuze’s notion of the dividual, where life is signified by digital information, rather than something truly human. As Shaw himself notes, in signature strikes by remote-controlled drones, the targets are dividuals who simply fit a criteria of a terrorist pattern of life, for example. With future autonomous weapons, killing by criteria is likely to be the same, but a lethal decision-making algorithm is likely to determine all targets based on criteria, whether something simple like an individuals membership of an enemy armed forces, or working out if patterns of life qualify an individual as a terrorist. In this sense, no only do the targets become dividuals, as they are reduced to data points picked up by sensors, but also those deploying autonomous weapons become dividuals as their targeting criteria and therefore their political and military desires become algorithmic data also. It seems that one of the effects of using robotics is not only the de-humanising of potential targets, but also the de-humanising of potential users. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


 

What do you think?

Should robots be allowed to target people? Based on combatant status?

Here is our second question this month on autonomous weapon systems. Due to space reasons in the title I did paraphrase it slightly. Here is the full question which went out to all network members:

If the technology within a lethal autonomous weapon system can comply with the law of armed conflict, should they be allowed to target people? Should they be able to target people based on their membership of a group, for example, membership of an enemy military, or a rebel group? 

Here’s what we thought:


This question poses a massive moral and ethical dilemma, and not just for autonomous weapon systems (AWS). Membership of any organisation, including notably, the State, has always been problematic, but in a ‘traditional’ military setting, we tend to work around this by drawing a clear distinction between those in uniform and those not. Of course this construct is undermined as soon as you introduce the partisan, or the non-uniformed fighter, and as we have seen in recent years, terrorist organisations seek to avoid marking their members completely. So there is the problem of identification to start with… But then things get more tricky when you come to question the terms of membership, or the consent given by any ‘member’ of an organisation to be a part of said organisation, and quite what that membership entails.  

Take citizenship for example: we don’t formally ‘sign up’, but we are assumed to be a part of said organisation (i.e. the State) so would be targets of the ‘group’ known as the State in the terms set by this question. Take this argument one step further and you could have say, ‘Members of the TTAC21 reading group’. On first glance, members of our reading group might be ‘legitimate’ targets, however each of our ‘members’ has different levels of consent and participation within the group. Some for example have come along to meetings in person, or have Skyped in for an hour or two. Meanwhile others have provided comment for the blog, while others are yet to contribute anything. Are each of these members ‘members’ of the same level? How and why can, or indeed should, we compare any one member to another? And let’s not forget the question of motivation. Some of us are members because we are actively working in the field, while some of us have different level of interest or motivation. Does that then mean that each of us should be tarred with the same brush and classified in the same way when it comes to targeting members of our specific group? 

This question is far more complex than it seems! 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


This question really gets to the nub of why some people are concerned with autonomous weapon systems. If something is possible, should we do it? At the recent Group of Governmental Experts meeting on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems at the UN in November 2017, Paul Scharre put it something like this: If we could have a perfectly functioning autonomous weapon system in the future, where would we still want humans to make decisions? 

It seems that most people do want human control over lethal decision-making, although some are willing to delegate this to a machine if it were to become a military necessity. However, many are dead-set against any such delegation. I think a major aspect of this is trust. Are we willing to trust our lives to machines? Many people are already doing so in prototype and beta-testing self-driving cars, and in doing so are also putting the lives of nearby pedestrians in the ‘hands’ of these self-driving cars. For many, this is unnerving. Yet, we put our lives in the hands of fellow drivers every time we go out on the road. We all know this, but are all comfortable with this fact. Perhaps we will not be happy to delegate our transport to machines until we can trust them. I think if self-driving cars were shown to be functioning perfectly, people would begin to trust them. 

With lethal autonomous systems, the stakes are much higher.  A self-driving car may take the wrong turn, an autonomous weapon may take the wrong life. This is obviously a huge issue, that people may never become comfortable with. But, here we are hypothetically considering those which would function perfectly. I still think it will come down to whether people will trust a system to make the correct decision.  And yet, there are still issues around whether a machine could ever comprehend every possible situation it could be in. An often used example is an enemy soldier who has fallen asleep on guard duty. The law of armed conflict would allow combatants to kill this sleeping soldier simply for being a member of the enemy side. Yet, it is difficult for us to accept when there is the possibility of capture. Here, this would not be a legal requirement under the law of armed conflict, but may be a moral desire. If programming of autonomous weapons can go beyond the law to take ethical decisions into account as well, trust in the lethal decision-making capability of machines may grow resulting in society being ok with machines performing status-based targeting. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


 

What do you think?

Leveringhaus – Autonomous weapons mini-series: Distance, weapons technology and humanity in armed conflict

This week we are considering Distance, weapons technology and humanity in armed conflict from the Autonomous Weapons mini-series over on the Humanitarian Law & Policy blog from the International Committee of the Red Cross. In it, the author discusses how distance can affect moral accountability, with particular focus on drones and autonomous weapons. Please take a look yourself, and let us know what you think in the comments below. 

 


This blog offers interesting insight into concepts of ‘distance’ in warfare. In it, the author distinguishes between geographical distance and psychological distance, and also then brings in concepts of causal and temporal distance to show the complex inter-relations between the various categories.  

One of the key questions raised in the article is: ‘how can one say that wars are fought as a contest between military powers if killing a large number of members of another State merely requires pushing a button?’ The implication here, to me at least (as I have also suggested in my comments in other blogs), is a need to reimagine or reconstruct the concept of ‘warfare’ in the public consciousness. We seem stuck currently in a position whereby memories of the two world wars linger, and the public conceive of war as being fought on designated battlefields with easily recognisable sides. 

While I agree with much of what the author says, where this article falls down I think is in the conclusion that ‘the cosmopolitan ideal of a shared humanity is good starting point for a wider ethical debate on distance, technology, and the future of armed conflict.’ While I agree with the author’s stance in principle, his argument relies on both sides in any given conflict sharing the same ethical framework. As we have seen already with suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism, this is no longer an ‘even’ battlefield – nor indeed is it a battle fought between two clearly delineated sides. While such disparities exist, I find it hard to believe any sort of balance can be struck. 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


 

I found this piece, and its discussion of different types of distance both interesting and illuminating. I’ve spoken with a number of students recently about distance, and how that affects their feelings regarding their own decision-making, and the consequences of it. I found it really interesting that a large proportion of students were quite accepting of the idea that moral distance makes one feel less responsible for something that happens. But, many of the same students also wanted people held responsible for their actions regardless of that moral distance. So this gives us a strange situation where people who feel no responsibility should be held responsible. I don’t think this position is unusual. In fact, I think most people around the world would agree with this position, despite it being rather paradoxical. 

It is clear that from a moral perspective, an accountability gap could be created. But, as ethics and morals are flexible and subjective, one could also argue that there is no moral accountability gap. Fortunately, law is more concrete. We do have legal rules on responsibility. We’ve seen that a number of autonomous vehicle manufacturers are going to take responsibility for their vehicles in self-driving modes. However, it is yet to be seen if autonomous weapon system manufacturers will follow this lead. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


 

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Do previous instances of weapons regulation offer any useful concepts for governing lethal autonomous weapon systems?

Here is our first question on lethal autonomous weapon systems this month. If you have any thoughts about answers, let us know in the comments.


The question for me at least is whether or not we can draw parallels between regulation of the human and regulation of the machine. The problem here is that there are no clear and simple ways of holding a machine to account, so the question of responsibility and therefore regulation become problematic. We can hold a soldier to account for misusing a gun – we cannot do the same for a  machine. For one thing, they do not know, and cannot experience the concept of human death, so how can we even hold them to the same level of accountability when they cannot even understand the framework on which modern human ethics is built?   

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


Recently, I read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature. In it he considers why violence has declined over centuries. One part of it looks at weapons of mass destruction. For Pinker, the main reason chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are not used regularly is not because of international law concerns around high levels of collateral damage, but more because it would break a taboo on using them. Pinker suggests that the taboo is so powerful that using weapons of mass destruction are not even in the minds of military planners when considering war plans. Autonomous weapons have the potential to be as impactful as weapons of mass destruction, but without the horrendous collateral damage concerns. Would this create an equal taboo based on the human unease at delegating lethal decision-making? I think a taboo would be created, but the likely reducing in collateral damage would make any taboo weaker. Therefore taboo is unlikely to restrict any future use of autonomous weapons. 

In terms of treaty-based regulation, having been at the meetings of experts on lethal autonomous weapon systems at the UN, I think any meaningful ban on these weapons is unlikely. However, in recent years a number of informal expert manuals have been created on air and missile warfare, naval warfare, and cyber warfare. They have generally been well received, and their recommendations followed. I could imagine a situation in the future where similar ‘road rules’ are developed for autonomous weapons, interpreting the requirements of the law of armed conflict and international human rights law for such systems. This could result in more detailed regulation, as there is less watering down of provisions by states who want to score political points rather than progress talks. We will have to wait and see if this will happen. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


 

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Haas and Fisher – The evolution of targeted killing practices: Autonomous weapons, future conflict, and the international order

This week we begin our discussions of autonomous weapon systems. Following on from the discussions of the Group of Governmental Experts at the UN last November, more talks are taking place in February and April this year. For those not aware, an autonomous weapon system is that which can select and engage targets without human intervention – think a drone with the brain of The Terminator.

First, we are looking at ‘The evolution of targeted killing practices: Autonomous weapons, future conflict, and the international order’ by Michael Carl Haas and Sophie-Charlotte Fischer from Contemporary Security Policy, 38:2 (2017), 281–306. Feel free to check the article out and let us know what you think in the comments below.

Here’s what we thought:

 


I enjoyed this article, and the ways in which it seeks to engage with the future applications of AWS in what we might describe as ‘conventional’ wars with the use of targeted killings or ‘assassinations’ by drone likely to become more common.

From my own research perspective I am particularly interested in the authors’ approach to autonomy and autonomous thinking in machines (see 284 onwards). I agree with the authors that ‘the concept of “autonomy” remains poorly understood’ (285), but suggest that perhaps here the academic community has become too caught up in machinic autonomy. If we can’t first understand human autonomy, how can we hope to apply a human framework to our understanding of machines? This question to me, seems to be one that has been under-represented in academic thinking in this area, and is one I may well have to write a paper on!

Finally, I’d like to briefly mention the question of human vs machinic command and control. I was interested to see that the authors suggest AWS might not become ubiquitous in ‘conventional’ conflicts when we consider the advantages and disadvantages of their use for military commanders (297). To me, there is a question here of at what point does machinic intelligence or machine-thinking ‘trump’ the human? Certainly our technology as it stands to date still puts the human as superior in many types of thinking, yet I can’t believe that it will be too long before computers start to totally outsmart humans such that this will even remain a question.  There is also then the question of ‘training cost’. In a drawn out conflict, what will be easier and cheaper to produce: a robot fighter who will be already pre-programmed with training and so on, or the human soldier who requires an investment of time and resources, and who may never quite take on his or her ‘programming’ to the same level as the machine. Something to think about certainly…

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


 

I quite liked this piece, as it is common to hear fellow researchers of autonomous weapons say that such systems will change warfare but then provide no discussion of how this will happen. Fortunately, this paper does just that. I particularly liked the idea that use of autonomous systems for ‘decapitation’ strikes against senior military, political, or terrorist leaders/influencers could not only reduce collateral damage overall, and the number of friendly deaths, but also the level of destruction a conflict could have in general. Indeed, I’ve heard a number of people suggest that present-day drones offer a chance at ‘perfect’ distinction, in that they are so precise that the person aimed at is almost always the person who dies with often little collateral damage. It is usually poor intelligence analysis that results in the wrong person being targeted in the first place that is responsible for the unfortunately high number of civilian deaths in the ‘drone wars’. Use of AI could rectify this, but also the use of autonomous weapons could reduce the need for substantial intelligence analysis if they were one day capable of identifying combatant status of ordinary fighters, and of identifying specific high-level personalities through facial or iris recognition. If this becomes possible, autonomous weapons could have the strategic impact of a nuclear bomb against the enemy fighters, without causing much collateral damage.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


 

Let us know what you think in the comments below

Singer – Corporate Warriors: The Rise and Ramifications of the Privatized Military Industry

This week, we consider Peter Singer’s keystone piece in the study of private military contractors (PMCs). It is important to distinguish them from mercenaries, who are usually individuals employed to fight, whereas a PMC usually has a corporate business structure and are employed to provide a whole host of military-related services, from intelligence gathering and analysis, combat support, and providing security.

Although this is the first post in a series of comments to pieces on the theme of ‘Industry and Security’, this will be the final post of 2017. We are taking a break over Christmas, and will be back posting in January. We would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading and contributing to posts, and we look forward to more fascinating discussion in the new year.

On to what we think of the article…


This excellent article explores some of the many issues surrounding ‘privatized military firms’ (PMFs) operating within warzones across the globe. According to the author, these PMFs represent the ‘new business form of war’ in which market forces play an increasingly important role in the global military, and political landscape. Indeed, it could be argued they change the landscape completely, for with the rise of PMFs so State accountability takes a back-seat, and war loses any remaining ideological  motivation it may have previously had.

One particularly interesting question for me, is the recruitment and retention of soldiers / operators / employees (call them what you will!) within these PMFs. While the author raises the question of responsibility and the problematic of balancing ‘getting things done’ with having a good human rights record, there is also then the issue of responsibility when it comes to the actual training of these troops in the first place.

Here in the UK, the National Health Service pays to train doctors and nurses, and yet once they have been trained, these same doctors and nurses are effectively free to go and work wherever they so choose. This same problematic would seem to arise with the modern-day PMFs. If an militarily advanced Western State invests hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds in training high quality soldiers, what happens when these same soldiers decide to work for a PMF? What can States do to stop these same expensive soldiers one day coming back and fighting for the ‘enemy’ further down the line? Where does responsibility for these soldiers begin and end? And how on Earth can you hope to hold a PMF, and its ‘employees’ to account?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


The article is a little bit older, so the question is of course what relevance it still has for the present-day situation.  The article came at a time where much of the debate on global conflicts centered on warlords and civil wars in the Global South, while current analysis of warfare has a very different focus. However, it is one of the earliest articles describing the role of private military companies in security practices, and as such has been very important for that field. For people interested in more articles on this subject, I would recommend the work of Anna Leander.

I appreciate how the author points out the larger historical trends towards privatisation of government services, the transformation of type of conflicts, and the effects of the end of Cold War on military systems. It creates a clear picture on how private military industry has developed. I think a larger discussion on the influence of globalisation would have also fit well into this picture, as well as an analysis of the changing structure of the international arms trade in the 1990s. Considering it is written in 2002 however, it is remarkable how many of the implications and problems mentioned – such as a lack of oversight, imperialism by invitation or human rights violations – have also occurred during the US invasion of Iraq, which saw a high amount of private military contractors too.

I find the concept of Private Military Industry as used by the author very slippery however. Singer purposefully talks about “industry” instead of corporations to include actors offering other types of military services, as well as the overall industry instead of subsections.  But what falls under this exactly? When does something become corporate, only when it is registered as an official company? That is a very Western view on what falls under the private sector as it ignores the informal economy, and thus does not necessarily apply worldwide. Does this include all actors involved in war working for a profit? Smuggling is a huge component in many conflicts, and it often cannot be precisely determined whether resource extraction and sales are the cause of a conflict or just a means to finance conflict – when do profit-oriented motives of warlords turn them into private military actors? Defence companies have always played a large role in warfare, from supplying weapons to maintaining and sometimes operating them (as the author rightly points out), but then what are the new developments? Where does the military-entertainment complex fit in here? Of course, a lack of an airtight framework is one of the lacunas that Singer points out, but he does not really criticise the concept or define it more closely. If everything is private military industry, the concept is analytically meaningless.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels


The idea of the corporate warrior fascinates me no end. It is a clear example of the state monopoly on violence crumbling, and the increasing capabilities which powerful individuals can have at their finger tips.

Most of the discussion about private military companies focusses on a corporate-industrial-military complex, however a couple of years ago there were discussions about the potential for their use for humanitarian reasons. During the lightening ISIS advance, a large group of the Yezidi group were trapped on Mount Sinjar. At the time, it was politically difficult for any state to deploy military forces for a humanitarian intervention. However, financially powerful individuals could have organised their own humanitarian intervention through the use of a PMC.

This would have been a unique moment. The fact that it is even possible shows that the state monopoly on violence is long gone. The ramifications of this could be that financially powerful individuals could use PMC power not just for their own security, but to realise their political ambitions as well. Potentially, this could result in a larger number of civil wars, rebellions, or even annexation and fiefdoms and created all using PMC power and purely because somebody with enough money and desire wanted it. What then will become of the international system when some big players do not play by the rules of traditional statehood? Or quasi-states are created purely as a toy for the rich and powerful?

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below.