New briefing: For Heaven’s Sake – Examining the UK’s Militarisation of Space

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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

None too clever? Military applications of artificial intelligence

Drone Wars UK’s latest briefing looks at where and how artificial intelligence is currently being applied in the military context and considers the legal and ethical, operational and strategic risks posed.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI), automated decision making, and autonomous technologies have already become common in everyday life and offer immense opportunities to dramatically improve society.  Smartphones, internet search engines, AI personal assistants, and self-driving cars are among the many products and services that rely on AI to function.  However, like all technologies, AI also poses risks if it is poorly understood, unregulated, or used in inappropriate or dangerous ways.

In current AI applications, machines perform a specific task for a specific purpose.  The umbrella term ‘computational methods’ may be a better way of describing such systems, which fall far short of human intelligence but have wider problem-solving capabilities than conventional software.  Hypothetically, AI may eventually be able to perform a range of cognitive functions, respond to a wide variety of input data, and understand and solve any problem that a human brain can.  Although this is a goal of some AI research programmes, it remains a distant  prospect.

AI does not operate in isolation, but functions as a ‘backbone’ in a broader system to help the system achieve its purpose.  Users do not ‘buy’ the AI itself; they buy products and services that use AI or upgrade a legacy system with new AI technology.  Autonomous systems, which are machines able to execute a task without human input, rely on artificial intelligence computing systems to interpret information from sensors and then signal actuators, such as motors, pumps, or weapons, to cause an impact on the environment around the machine.  Read more