BAE Systems pushing ahead with autonomous drone targeting

BAE System's Taranis drone in flight
BAE System’s Taranis drone in flight

In a briefing for selected journalists on its military drone projects, BAE Systems revealed that it is pushing ahead with work on allowing future armed drones to undertake autonomous targeting.

While current British rules of engagement mean that a human must individually authorise targets, company executives told journalists that “the rules of engagement could change.”  The Times reported that the company was ‘proceeding on the basis that an autonomous strike capability could be required in the future.’

Previously the company has said that Taranis is capable of autonomously searching for targets but linking this with undertaking strikes is yet another step forward in the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS).

The extremely worrying revelations come as the UK continues to resist pressure for a pre-emptive ban on such systems.  The UK states that as its policy is not to develop lethal autonomous weapons systems (and it again reiterated this position in response to the company’s comments) that therefore a ban is simply not necessary.  However as Article 36 points out in its very helpful background briefing, The United Kingdom and lethal autonomous weapons systems,  “No substantive rationale has been offered for this assertion…the UK appears to be the only state to have explicitly ruled out the development of new international law.”

Indeed one of the arguments for a preemptive ban is that while individual countries argue they would not themselves develop such systems, once defence companies produce the technology it becomes almost impossible for states not to then deploy it.

An open letter published last year from 1,000 leading experts and researchers in the field, including Professor Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak warned of the dangers of developing autonomous weapon systems.

“The endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting.”

The revelation that defence giants like BAE Systems are now actively pursing autonomous targeted strike capability in anticipation that use of such systems will inevitably become acceptable at some point in the future will undoubtedly lead to increased calls for an international preemptive ban.

Also at the briefing BAE Systems said that it was in discussion with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) about a fourth set of tests flights for Taranis.  Details of the number of flights and hours flown in previous tests remain secret but the company confirmed that tests had taken place in Australia as long suspected. Groups of reporters were given a glimpse of Taranis from 50 feet away but were not allowed to take photographs or make sketches.  “Our party had to stand behind a tape, wait for the hangar doors to be half-opened and then admire it from 15 yards away” said the Express’ reporter

Separate from the Taranis programme, BAE Systems are also working in conjunction with Dassault Aviation on developing a new combat drone, currently dubbed the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), under a £1.5bn Anglo-French programme.  BAE said parameters for the programme which will pave the way for a prototype craft should be set in the next nine to 12 months.

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