New trials of AI-controlled drones show push towards ‘killer robots’ as Lords announces special inquiry

General Atomics Avenger controlled by AI in trial

Two recently announced trials of AI-controlled drones dramatically demonstrates the urgent need to develop international controls over the development and use of lethal autonomous weapon systems known as ‘killer robots’.

In early January, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that a joint UK-US AI taskforce had undertaken a trial of its ‘AI toolbox’ during an exercise on Salisbury Plain in December 2022.  The trial saw a number of Blue Bear’s Ghost drones controlled by AI which was updated during the drone’s flight. The experiments said the MoD, “demonstrated that UK-US developed algorithms from the AI Toolbox could be deployed onto a swarm of UK UAVs and retrained by the joint AI Taskforce at the ground station and the model updated in flight, a first for the UK.”  The trials were undertaken as part of the on-going US-UK Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence Collaboration (AAIC) Partnership Agreement.  The MoD has refused to give MPs sight of the agreement.

Two weeks later, US drone manufacturer General Atomics announced that it had conducted flight trials on 14 December 2022 where an AI had controlled one of its large Avenger drones from the company’s own flight operations facility in El Mirage, California.

Blue Bear Ghost drones in AI in trail on Salisbury Plain

General Atomics said in its press release that the AI “successfully navigated the live plane while dynamically avoiding threats to accomplish its mission.” Subsequently, AI was used to control both the  drone and a ‘virtual’ drone at the same time in order to “collaboratively chase a target while avoiding threats,” said the company.  In the final trial, the AI “used sensor information to select courses of action based on its understanding of the world state. According to the company, “this demonstrated the AI pilot’s ability to successfully process and act on live real-time information independently of a human operator to make mission-critical decisions at the speed of relevance.”

Drone Wars UK has long warned that despite denials from governments on the development of killer robots, behind the scenes corporations and militaries are pressing ahead with testing, trialling and development of technology to create such systems. As we forecast in our 2018 report ‘Off the Leash’ armed drones are the gateway to the development of lethal autonomous systems.  Whiles these particular trials will not lead directly to the deployment of lethal autonomous systems, byte-by-byte the building blocks are being put in place.

House of Lords Special Committee

Due to continuing developments in this area we were pleased to learn that the House of Lords voted to accept Lord Clement-Jones’ proposal for a year-long inquiry by a special committee to investigate the use of artificial intelligence in weapon systems.  We will monitor the work of the Committee throughout the year but for now here is the accepted proposal in full:  Read more

Why we oppose today’s planned UK space launch

Protestors gathered at Newquay ‘Spaceport’ in October 2022 to oppose UK space launch

Tonight’s planned space launch from Newquay ‘spaceport’ is the latest step in a new era of expansion into space by the military with the UK wholeheartedly joining a space arms race which will inevitably lead to greater risk of instability and conflict.

Space is rapidly becoming a key domain for military operations as modern wars rely heavily on space-based assets for command and control,  surveillance,  intelligence gathering, missile warning and supporting forces deployed overseas. Satellites also enable communications links for military and security forces, including communications needed to remotely fly armed drones.

Over the past two years we have seen the setting up of UK Space Command, the publication of a Defence Space Strategy outlining how the MoD will “protect the UK’s national interests in space” and the announcement of a portfolio of new military programmes to develop space assets and infrastructure.   MoD ministers have openly stated that they now determine space to be a war fighting domain.

As well as today’s planned launch – which will see at least two pairs of military satellites placed in space – ground has been broken on a new spaceport in the Shetland Isles.

Protestors at Newquay Airport, October 2022. Credit: Phil Green/Peter Burt

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Task Force 99: New US drone unit begins work in the Middle East

Task Force 99 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (Credit USAF)

A new unit tasked with field-testing aerial uncrewed systems and AI technologies has begun work in the middle east according to the head of US Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Major General Alexus Grynkewich.  “It’s a small group of super-empowered airmen that I’m going to provide resources to so they can rapidly innovate and experiment in our literal sandbox that we have in the Middle East” the General told the US Air, Space and Cyber conference in September. It is unclear how the description of the Middle East as “our literal sandbox” was received by allies attending the conference.

Some of Task Force 99’s work will be focused on countering the threat of small drones from state and non-state actors, but it will also ‘experiment with off-the-shelf technologies’ in the ‘hope of harnessing new technologies in innovative ways’ according to reports in defence press.

The new Air Force unit is similar to the US Navy’s Task Force 59, which is based in Bahrain and has been conducting experiments with maritime drones for the past 12 months, (although the US has been using maritime drones in the region for a good deal longer). Tension flared in September 2022 between the US and Iran when two of Task Force 59’s surface drones were seized by an Iranian ship in the Red Sea.  After the US demanded that the drones be returned, the Iranian ship released them into the water the following morning.

The US Air Force’s Task Force 99 will mainly be based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar but will also have a small ‘satellite innovation cell’ at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, from where US and British Reaper drones operate. The Al Udeid unit will ‘experiment with variable payloads on small drones’ according to a report in ‘Air and Space Forces’ magazine.    Read more

Future War: The Shape of Things to Come

A day conference of workshops, discussion and debate on the impact new technologies
will have on future conflicts – and the challenges facing peace activists.

While terrible wars currently rage in Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia and elsewhere, preparations for future wars using new technologies is also underway.

New technology can be a spur for great social change, offering tremendous possibilities.  However, innovations in artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous systems and biotechnology are also being used in the military and security realms in ways which will directly and indirectly affect global peace and security. Scrutiny of these developments and building towards peaceful ways to solve political conflicts in ways which do not threaten people and the environment is crucial.

This open public conference organised by Drone Wars and CND  will bring together expert speakers and campaigners to discuss these developments and debate how we can work together to challenge wars today and in the future.

Book your free tickets here 

Supported by Scientists for Global Responsibility, UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Peace News and others.  Read more

Pandora’s Box: Reflecting on 20 years of drone targeted killing

Online webinar: 3 November 2022, 7pm (GMT)

November 3rd this year will mark 20 years since a remotely-controlled drone was first used to carry out an extra-judicial killing ‘beyond the battlefield’. While drones had previously been used in warzones, this was the first time a drone had been used to hunt down and kill specific individuals in a country in which the US was not at war.

Since then, an untold number of such operations have taken place across the globe with a significant number of such strikes also causing serious civilian casualties.  Despite huge controversy the United States continues to engage in such killings (even while arguing publicly such actions are ‘limited‘) and the practise has now spread amongst other drone operators including the UK, France and Turkey.

In this important online webinar, Drone Wars has invited a number of experts to mark 20 years of drone targeted killings, to offer some reflections on the human, legal and political cost of the practice and to discuss how we can press the international community to ensure that drone operators abide by international law in this area.

 

Speakers:

  • Agnes Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International. Ex Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2016-2021)
  • Chris Woods, Founder of Airwars, author of ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’
  • Bonyan Jamal, Yemen-based lawyer and Legal Support Director with Mwatana for Human Rights, Yemen
  • Kamaran Osman, Human Rights Observer for Community Peacemaker Teams in Iraq Kurdistan

Chair:  Chris Cole, Director, Drone Wars UK

 

Tickets for the webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

 

See also  ‘Twenty years of drone targeted killing

A deadly legacy: 20 years of drone targeted killing

On the 3rd November 2002,  a US Predator drone targeted and killed Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, a Yemeni member of al-Qaeda who the CIA believed responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in which 17 US sailors were killed. While drones had previously been used in warzones, this was the first time the technology had been used to hunt down and kill a specific individual in a country in which the US was not at war – ‘beyond the battlefield’ as it has become euphemistically known. Since then, numerous US targeted killings have taken place in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, while other states who have acquired the technology – including the UK – have also carried out such strikes.

At first, the notion of remotely targeting and killing suspects outside of the battlefield and without due process was shocking to legal experts, politicians and the press.  In an armed conflict where international humanitarian law (the Laws of War) apply, such strikes can be lawful.  However, outside of the battlefield, where killing of suspects is only accepted in order to prevent imminent loss of life, such killings are almost certainly unlawful. Indeed in early reporting on the first such attack 20 years ago, journalists noted that the US State Department has condemned targeted killing of suspects by Israel (see article below).

New York Times, 6 November, 2002. Click to see original.

However, the US argued – and continues to argue today – that its targeted killings are lawful.  It has put forward a number of arguments over the years which are seriously questioned by other states and international law experts.  These include  the notion that whenever and wherever that US undertakes military action international humanitarian law applies; that because states where the US engages in such strikes are ‘unable or unwilling’ to apprehend suspects its lethal actions are lawful; and that there should be greater ‘flexibility’ in interpreting the notion of  ‘imminence’ in relation to last resort.

Here are a small sample of drone targeted killing operations undertaken by the US and others.

November 3, 2002, US drone strike on a vehicle in Marib province, Yemen. 
  • Target: Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi

The first drone targeted killing saw a CIA Predator drone operating out of Djibouti launch two missiles at a vehicle travelling through the desert in Marib province, Yemen. The drone’s target was ostensibly al-Qaeda leader Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, said by the US to be behind the lethal attack on the USS Cole two years previously.  However, also in the vehicle was  US citizen Kemal Darwish and four other men, all believed to be members of al-Qaeda.  As Chris Woods wrote in 2012, “The way had been cleared for the killings months earlier, when President Bush lifted a 25-year ban on US assassinations just after 9/11. [Bush] wrote that ‘George Tenet proposed that I grant broader authority for covert actions, including permission for the CIA to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives without asking for my sign-off each time. I decided to grant the request.’”

Online webinar: Pandora’s box: 20 years of drone targeted killing

Drone Wars has invited a number of experts to mark 20 years of drone targeted killings by offering some reflections on the human, legal and political cost of the practice and to discuss how we can press the international community to ensure that drone operators abide by international law in this area.

  • Agnes Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International. Ex Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2016-2021)
  • Chris Woods, Founder of Airwars, author of ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’
  • Bonyan Jamal, Yemen-based lawyer and Legal Support Director with Mwatana for Human Rights, Yemen
  • Kamaran Osman, Human Rights Observer for Community Peacemaker Teams in Iraq Kurdistan
  • (Chair)  Chris Cole, Director, Drone Wars UK

Tickets for this online webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

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