Early in 2019, as part of his ‘Defence in Global Britain’ speech, then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans to develop a new capability of swarming drones. “I have decided to use the Transformation Fund [ring-fenced funds to develop new military technology] to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences.” Rather rashly, the Secretary of State went on to declare “we expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of the year.” Read more →
Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide To Technology Ethics, Stephanie Hare, London Publishing Partnership, Feb 2022
The Political Philosophy of AI: Mark Coeckelbergh, Polity Press, Feb 2022
New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) raise formidable political and ethical challenges, and these two books each provide a different kind of practical toolkit for examining and analysing these challenges. Through investigating a range of viewpoints and examples they thoroughly disprove the claim that ‘technology is neutral’, often used as a cop-out by those who refuse to take responsibility for the technologies they have developed or promoted.
Mark Coeckelbergh is Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna, and his book ‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ encourages us to reflect on what advanced technologies such as AI are already doing to us, in order to prevent us from becoming their helpless victims. In many ways the book is more about political philosophy than about AI, and is none the worse for that. Coeckelbergh points out that although a great deal has been written about the technology and the ethics of AI, there has been little thought on the impacts of AI from the perspective of political philosophy, and he sets out to correct this omission.
Political theorist Langdon Winner has argued that technology is political and observes that instead of bringing greater democratisation and equality, new technologies may well give even more power to those who already have a great deal of it. Coeckelbergh’s book exposes the political power that AI wields alongside its technical power and shows how new technologies such as AI are fundamentally entangled with changes in society. He explains how the political issues we care about in society are changed and take on new meanings and urgency in the light of technological developments such as advances in robotics, AI, and biotechnology, arguing that to understand the rights and wrongs of new technologies we need to consider them from the perspective of political philosophy as well as ethics, and that this will help us to clarify the questions and issues which the technologies raise.
‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ sets out the theories of political philosophy chapter-by-chapter as they relate to the major elements of politics today – freedom, justice, equality, democracy, power, and the environment – and for each element explores the consequences that we can expect as AI becomes established in society. This serves to frame the challenges that the technology will bring and act as an evaluative framework to assess its impacts. Coeckelbergh also uses the analysis to develop a political philosophy for AI itself, which helps us to not only understand and question our political values but also gain a deeper insight into the nature of politics and humanity.
Coeckelbergh’s book asks questions rather than gives answers, and this may disappoint some readers. But this approach is in line with the philosophical approach that politics should be publicly discussed in a participative and inclusive way, rather than subject to autocratic decisions made by a powerful minority. That there is virtually no public debate about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI to transform society says as much about our political system as it does about AI.
“That there is virtually no public debate
about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI
to transform society says as much about our political system
as it does about AI.”
The data, compiled from official sources, contains more than 1,650 individual reports with the vast majority detailing the target, the aircraft used to launch the strike and which munitions were used. Our aim in publishing this dataset is to both aid transparency and to encourage greater study of the impact of UK air and drone operations.
While the MoD currently has a list of UK air strikes in Iraq and Syria on its website (available here), the reports in many cases are only a summary of the original releases, with vital detail edited out. For example the entry for 18 January 2018 reads as follows:
“2 Reapers struck 6 terrorist targets, including 2 armed trucks, 2 lorry-bombs, a mortar and a Daesh held building, in eastern Syria.”
However the original report, available in our dataset, reads:
“SDF operations north of Abu Kamal on Thursday 18 January were supported by two RAF Reapers as well as other coalition aircraft. One of our Reapers used a Hellfire to knock out an armed truck that was firing on the SDF, then pursued a second such vehicle as it drove away and destroyed it with another Hellfire. A third Hellfire was used in a successful attack on a Daesh-held building. The second Reaper also conducted three attacks; a Hellfire missile silenced a mortar spotted firing from beneath some trees, and a further missile and a GBU-12 guided bomb took care of two truck-bombs. As well as conducting their own attacks, the Reapers also provided targeting and surveillance support to seven attacks by coalition aircraft, against a range of terrorist positions, including two engineering vehicles being used by Daesh, and a large group of terrorists mounted on motorcycles, whom our aircraft tracked to a compound, where they were successfully targeted by a fast jet.”
Perhaps even more importantly, more than 40 reports of UK strikes – including the first four to occur in late September/ early October 2014 – are simply absent from the MoD’s list. In addition, the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in August 2015, which was a separate, UK intelligence-led, mission and not part of coalition operations against ISIS, is also not included in the MoD’s list. All of these are included in Drone Wars dataset. For many reasons we think that it is important that a full list of UK air strikes is publicly available. At the end of UK air operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the MoD deleted details of UK strikes in Afghanistan from its website.
Unreported drones strikes in 2018
Intriguingly, there are eight Reaper drone strikes included in the MoD’s summary list for which no details were released at the time of the strikes All of these occurred in Syria during the second half of 2018 and several have the potential to be possible targeted killings. It is possibly relevant that these unreported strikes occurred in the months following the May 2018 announcement that a UK drone strike in eastern Syria had killed a civilian. Read more →
Drone Wars UK’s new briefing, published in collaboration with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), looks at the UK’s emerging military space programme and considers the governance, environmental, and ethical issues involved.
Space based operations affect many aspects of modern life and commerce. The global economy relies heavily on satellites in orbit to provide communication services for a variety of services including mobile phones, the internet, television, and financial trading systems. Global positioning system (GPS) satellites play a key role in transport networks, while earth observation satellites provide information for weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and crop observation.
Space is also, unfortunately, a key domain for military operations. Modern military engagements rely heavily on space-based assets. Space systems are used for command and control globally; surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance; missile warning; and in support of forces deployed overseas. Satellites also provide secure communications links for military and security forces, including communications needed to fly armed drones remotely. Many precision-guided munitions use information provided by space-based assets to correct their positioning in order to hit a target.
The falling cost of launching small satellites is driving a new ‘race for space’, with many commercial and government actors keen to capitalise on the economic and strategic advantages offered by the exploitation of space. However this is creating conditions for conflict. Satellite orbits are contested and space assets are at risk from a variety of natural and artificial hazards and threats, including potential anti-satellite capabilities. Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and losing an important satellite could have severe consequences. The loss of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) – through an accident, impact of debris or a meteorite, technical failure, or a cyber-attack or similar on critical ground-based infrastructure – at a time of international tension could inadvertently lead to a military exchange, with major consequences. Read more →
Loitering munitions are now hitting the headlines in the media as a result of their use in the Ukraine war. Vivid descriptions of ‘kamikaze drones’ and ‘suicide drones’ outline the way in which these weapons operate: they are able to find targets and fly towards them before crashing into them and exploding. Both Russia and Ukraine are deploying loitering munitions, which allow soldiers to fire on targets such as tanks and heavy armour without the predictability of a mortar or artillery round firing on a set trajectory. Under some circumstances these ‘fire and forget’ weapons may be able operate with a high degree of autonomy. For example they can programmed to fly around autonomously in a defined search area and highlight possible targets such as tanks to the operator. In these circumstances they can be independent of human control. This trend towards increasing autonomy in weapons systems raising questions about how they might shape the future of warfare and the morality of their use.
Loitering munitions such as these have previously been used to military effect in Syria and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Although they are often described as drones, they are in many ways more like a smart missile than an uncrewed aircraft. Loitering munitions were first developed in the 1980s and can be thought of as a ‘halfway house’ between drones and cruise missiles. They differ from drones in that they are expendable, and unlike cruise missiles, have the ability to loiter passively in the target area and search for a target. Potential targets are identified using radar, thermal imaging, or visual sensor data and, to date, a human operator selects the target and executes the command to destroy the target. They are disposable, one-time use weapons intended to hunt for a target and then destroy it, hence their tag as ‘kamikaze’ weapons. Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to the Prime Minister describes a loitering munition as a “drone version of the AK-47: a cheap anonymous suicide drone that flies to the target and blows itself up – it’s so cheap you don’t care”. Read more →
Today we are publishing a fully revised and updated list of countries operating medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) armed drones as typified by the MQ-9 Reaper and Bayraktar TB2. Please note our list does not include states operating loitering munitions (sometimes dubbed ‘suicide drones’ by the media) or other, one-off use systems.
According to our data, 26 countries currently possess armed drones although for four of these, it is not clear if the drones are actually operational. Out of the 22 states known to operate armed drones, 11 have used them for cross border strikes, while 9 have used them to launch strikes within their own borders.
Since our last update just under a year ago, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Russia and Turkmenistan now possess armed drones. Of these, Ethiopia and Russia are known to have already used them to launch strikes, while Morocco appears to have launched a drone strike in Algeria. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan join Kazakhstan on the list of those who possess the capability seemingly for prestige purposes without any evidence that the systems are operational. Jordan’s CH-4 armed drones are non-operational and have been put up for sale, and while were rumours that they were purchased by a Libyan militia this has not been confirmed. The full list – and brief details for each country – are on our page: ‘Who Has Armed Drones?’
Turkey’s armed drone exports surge
Since developing and deploying the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, Turkey has becoming a significant exporter of armed drones. As the table below shows, 22 states have acquired armed drones in the nine years between 2013 and 2021. All bar two of the eleven countries to gain the capability between 2013 and 2018 obtained their armed drones from China.
However, in the last three years, only three of the eleven countries to gain the capability imported their armed drones from China, while six imported from Turkey. In addition, at least three other countries that were already operating Chinese armed drones have now also imported Turkish armed drones (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia). Read more →