Drone Wars continues to pursue details of secret UK drone operations

Drone Wars is undertaking legal action in an attempt to gain details of secret British Reaper drone operations that has been taking place since at least 2019.  Appealing against the MoD’s refusal to answer both FoI requests and parliamentary questions about these missions, Drone Wars is seeking answers before an Information Tribunal.

Drone Wars discovered in early 2020 that the UK was flying Reaper missions outside of ‘Operation Shader’, the name of the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Although the MoD acknowledged that such missions were taking place, it flatly refused to detail their location or the number of sorties that had been undertaken.  According to the latest FoI response from the MoD (Jan 2021) it appears these secret sorties are continuing.

After an internal appeal to the MoD was rejected in early 2020, Drone Wars appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in April 2020 with a response received in January 2021. Although the Commissioner accepted that there is “significant and weighty public interest in disclosure of the withheld information,” she ultimately upheld the refusal to release the information following undisclosed submissions made to the ICO by the Ministry of Defence. Read more

Meaning-less human control: Lessons from air defence systems for lethal autonomous weapons

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A new report co-published today by Drone Wars UK and the Centre for War Studies; University of Southern Denmark examines the lessons to be learned from the diminishing human control of air defence systems for the debate about lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) – ‘Killer Robots’ as they are colloquially called.

In an autonomous weapons system, autonomous capabilities are integrated into critical functions that relate to the selection and engagement of targets without direct human intervention. Subject expert Professor Noel Sharkey, suggests that a Lethal Autonomous Weapon System can be defined as “systems that, once activated, can track, identify and attack targets with violent force without further human intervention”. Examples of such systems include BAE Systems’ Taranis drone, stationary sentries such as the Samsung Techwin SGR-A1, and ground vehicles such as the Kalashnikov Concern Uran-9.

Air Defence Systems are an important area of study in relation to the development of LAWS as, they are already in operation and, while not completely autonomous due to having a human operator in control, they have automated and increasingly autonomous features. Vincent Boulanin and Maaike Verbruggen’s study for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that 89 states operate air defence systems. These includes global military powers such as the US, the UK, France, Russia, and China but also regional powers such as Brazil, India, and Japan.  Read more

‘All the warfare of the future’: Drones, new technology and the Integrated Review

At the beginning of March, the government will publish its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, known (thankfully) as ‘The Integrated Review’.  It’s purpose is to “define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.”

When published, the Integrated Review will likely focus on strategy and overarching themes rather than detail specific projects (a White Paper is expected soon after to flesh out equipment plans). However, it is already clear from statements made by ministers and senior military officers that in terms of defence and security, investment in emerging military technology such as direct energy, cyber, AI, and in particular, drones, is seen as key for the UK’s ‘involvement in the world’.

The clearest indication of this came in Boris Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons on defence spending in late November. Framed as an update on the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister announced a significant budget increase, declaring that UK military spending would be around £190 billion over the next four years.  Again and again during his statement, Johnson returned to the government’s commitment to , as he put it, ‘the new technologies of warfare’:

“Our new investment [is] to be focused on the technologies that will revolutionise warfare, forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy. A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites or drones, instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal response and offering an array of options, from summoning an airstrike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralysing the enemy with cyber-weapons. New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics. Our warships and combat vehicles will carry “directed energy weapons”, destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. For them, the phrase “out of ammunition” will become redundant.”

Asked about research and development spending, Johnson added

“There is big, big chunk of this package specifically dedicated to research and development in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future.  The victors of the future will be those who are able to master data and new technology in the way that this package supports.”

And Johnson isn’t the only one talking up the UK’s commitment to drones and new military technology.  Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggested last summer that 90% of the RAF’s aircraft will be unmanned drones by 2040, insisting that the Army would have to give up assets such as tanks in order to have more drones and other modern equipment. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, told Sky News on Remembrance Sunday that the British army of the 2030s could include large numbers of autonomous or remotely controlled machines while leaks to The Times indicated that the size of the British army could be cut by 10,000 as part of ‘an increased focus on unmanned drones and vehicles along with enhanced technological capabilities.’

While the direction of travel is increasingly clear, the question to be asked, then, is what is behind the embrace of drones, autonomy and other emerging technology? What does it indicate about how the government sees the UK’s role in the world that we are investing so heavily in these systems?  Read more

General Atomics plan flights of its new drone in UK – safety fears rerouted previous flights in the US    

A SkyGuardian UAV at General Atomics’ California factory.

General Atomics is to bring a company-owned SkyGuardian drone to the UK in the summer to undertake “a series of operational capability demonstrations” for the UK and other NATO members. The RAF’s soon to be acquired Protector drone is a version of the SkyGuardian with a range of UK modifications. The aircraft is being shipped into the UK rather than flying in (possibly due to the controversy around a previous flight to the UK) and will be based at RAF Waddington. Read more

Humans First: A Manifesto for the Age of Robotics. A review of Frank Pasquale’s ‘New Laws of Robotics’

In 2018, the hashtag #ThankGodIGraduatedAlready began trending on China’s Weibo social media platform.  The tag reflected concerns among Chinese students that schools had begun to install the ‘Class Care System’, developed by the Chinese technology company Hanwang.  Cameras monitor pupils’ facial expressions with deep learning algorithms identifying each student, and then classifying their behaviour into various categories – “focused”, “listening”, “writing”, “answering questions”, “distracted”, or “sleeping”. Even in a country where mass surveillance is common, students reacted with outrage.

There are many technological, legal, and ethical barriers to overcome before machine learning can be widely deployed in such ways but China, in its push to overtake the US as world’s leader in artificial intelligence (AI), is racing ahead to introduce such technology before addressing these concerns.  And China is not the only culprit.

Frank Pasquale’s book ‘The New Laws of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI’ investigates the rapidly advancing use of AI and intelligent machines in an era of automation, and uses a wide range of examples – among which the ‘Class Care System’ is far from the most sinister – to highlight the threats that the rush to robotics poses for human societies.  In a world dominated by corporations and governments with a disposition for centralising control, the adoption of AI is being driven by the dictates of neoliberal capitalism, with the twin aims of increasing profit for the private sector and cutting costs in the public sector.  Read more

On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasia

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Our new report, ‘On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasiaexamines the proliferation of drones and loitering munitions (often descried as suicide drones) across Eurasia. It charts their increasing use along the borders of separatist areas, aims to shed some light on the acquisition of large Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) Chinese drones in Central Asia, and asks why this has happened and what the likely consequences might be.

Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the people of Eurasia still live with conflict and repression that are part of the post-Soviet legacy. The year 2020 saw the most serious violence since 1994 erupt between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region also saw an upturn in violence, whilst Russia maintains its hold over Crimea. Georgia’s separatist regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – are also the site of ongoing clashes. These multiple conflicts impact the lives of civilians and abuses of human rights are common in the contested border regions. Moreover, the political cultures of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – remain autocratic and opaque, limiting democracy and human rights.  Read more