Drone Wars Select Committee submission on use of the military drones in countering migrant crossings

In Sept 2021 the prototype of the UK’s new armed drone flew from Scotland to undertake a mission involving a search pattern over the Channel.

Boris Johnson announced in mid-January that the armed forces was to take charge of limiting migrants crossing the English Channel. The announcement was described by The Times as one of a series of populist announcements by the embattled PM to save his premiership.

Soon after, the Defence Select Committee announced that it was to scrutinize the decision and sought submissions from interested parties:

“The Government’s decision that the Royal Navy should take over operations in the Channel has taken Parliament (and it seems the MOD) by surprise.  There are significant strategic and operational implications surrounding this commitment which need to be explored.”

Shockingly, both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office refused to submit evidence or send ministers to answer questions from the Committee.

Our full submission to the Committee on this issue – looking in particular at how drones are often seen as a ‘solution’ – is available on their website, while here we offer a short summary.

  • Drone Wars argues that the military should not be involved in day-to-day border control operations in the absence of any threat of military invasion. This role is primarily a policing and enforcement role centred on dealing with civilians which should be conducted by civilian agencies.  Military forces are not principally trained or equipped to deal with humanitarian or policing situations.  The UK borders are not a war zone, and civilians attempting to enter and leave the country are not armed combatants.

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Cost of UK air operations in Iraq and Syria tops £2bn with no end to strikes in sight

The long-delayed publication of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) accounts for 2020/21 show that the cost of UK air strikes and operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014 has now topped £2 billion.  It should be noted that these costs are covered by the Treasury over and above the UK’s defence budget.  The UK carried out 54 air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2021.

Published nine months after the  financial year end, the MoD’s accounts for 2020/21 detail that the ‘net additional cost’ to the UK of air operations against ISIS in the Middle East were £176m – an increase of 20% over 2019/20.  

Both the Iraq and Syrian government declared the military defeat of ISIS after its final territory was overrun in March 2019, while the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, six months later further degraded their capability. While ISIS undoubtedly remains a serious terrorist threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, the continuing presence of US troops and on-going air strikes are also deeply resented by the people of Iraq.  Read more

(Un)Safe Space: The growing military and commercial exploitation of space

Book Review: ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics’ by Bleddyn E. Bowen. Published by Edinburgh University Press, 2020

With the increasing recognition of satellite technology as critical to our daily lives, a number of states, including the US and the UK, now see space as a critical military domain like land, sea and air.  Bleddyn Bowen’s new book ‘War in Space – Strategy, Spacepower, Geopoliticsattempts to place the notion of ‘spacepower’ into the mainstream of International Relations by adding the use of space systems to the preparation for, and execution of, warfare.

Bowen notes that spacepower has provided new methods of political-economic development and poses questions such as ‘will a war begin or be decided in space?’, ‘how do satellites change the way war is conducted on Earth?” and “what difference can space warfare make on Earth?”  While full answers to these questions are not easily provided at a time when rapid change is taking place, Bowen does suggest that wars may not begin in space or be decided by what happens in orbit alone, and that space technology is not going to provide simple solutions to strategic problems.

While the second part of that statement may be true, the first part can be challenged in the light of the recent rush to space activity. Satellite systems are defenceless and extremely vulnerable and now that satellite technology is employed in so many aspects of our lives – from controlling drones to weather forecasting to banking and communications to GPS – the loss of an important satellite could cause havoc. However, the loss (even through an accident such as impact with space debris or a meteorite) of a key military or dual use satellite (such as one used for early warning of missile attack) at a time of international tension could lead to a military exchange and be catastrophic.  Read more

Skyborg: AI control of military drones begins to take off

In June 2021, Skyborg took control of an MQ-20 Avenger drone during a military exercise in California.

The influential State of AI Report 2021, published in October, makes the alarming observation that the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes is now moving from research into the production phase.  The report highlights three indicators which it argues shows this development, one of which is the progress that the US Air Force Research Laboratory is making in testing its autonomous ‘Skyborg’ system to control military drones.

Skyborg (the name is a play on the word ‘cyborg’ – a biological lifeform that has been augmented with technology such as bionic implants)  is intended to be an AI ‘brain’ capable of controlling an aircraft in flight.  Initially, the technology is planned to assist a human pilot in flying the aircraft.

As is often the case with publicity material for military equipment programmes, it is not always easy to distinguish facts from hype or to penetrate the technospeak in which statements from developers are written.  However, news reports and press statements show that over the past year the US Air Force has for the first time succeeded in demonstrating an “active autonomy capability” during test flights of the Skyborg system, as a first step towards being able to use the system in combat.

Official literature on the system states that Skyborg is an “autonomous aircraft teaming architecture”, consisting of a core autonomous control system (ACS): a ‘brain’ comprised of both hardware and software components which can be used to both assist the pilot of a crewed combat aircraft and fly a swarm of uncrewed drones. The system is being designed by the military IT contractor Leidos, with input from the US Air Force and other Skyborg contractors.  It would allow the aircraft to autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own. 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

Long read: Six strikes that show the reality of drone warfare today

Weddings. Hospitals. Refugee camps. Aid workers. All have become the target of lethal strikes this year due to the spreading use of drones by a growing number of states.  Here we detail six particular strikes and, below, reflect on what they show about the reality of drone warfare today.

1. January 3, 2021: French strike targeting a gathering of people, Mopti, Mali
Charred ground where French strike occurred according to UN investigation report.

Following surveillance by a French Reaper drone “spanning several days”, two French Mirage jets operating in conjunction with the drone fired three laser guided bombs at what was said to be a gathering of around 40 armed militants. French military spokesperson Col. Frederic Barbry told Associated Press that the strike followed an intelligence mission which showed a “suspicious gathering of people.”

The gathering, however, was a wedding party and, according to a subsequent UN investigation, 19 civilians, including the father of groom were killed. The detailed report concluded that around 100 people were at the wedding celebration including 5 men who were alleged to be members of an armed group, only one of whom visibly carried a weapon. The report stated:

“Of the 22 people killed, 19 were directly killed by the strike, including 16 civilians, while the three other civilians died of their injuries during their transfer for medical treatment. At least eight other civilians were injured in the strike.  The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are people protected against attacks under international humanitarian law.“

France rejected the results of the UN investigation and continues to dispute that any civilians were killed in the strike.  [Further details.]

 2. May 4 2021: US strike targeting vehicle and occupant, Deir Ezzor, Syria

A US Reaper drone strike targeted the occupant of a vehicle in eastern Syria with the man killed instantly. The Coalition tweeted:

“CJTFOIR conducted an air strike removing a Daesh terrorist from the battlefield near Dayr az Zawr, Syria today. Coalition and our partners will continue our mission to defeat Daesh, disrupt their resources and eliminate Daesh remnants.”

However, locals disputed that the man killed, identified as Bassem Atwan Al-Bilal, was involved with ISIS or any other militant group, stating that he worked in the gas industry, refining oil.  They also revealed that the man had only bought the vehicle two days previously and suggested that target of the drone strike was likely to have been the previous owner. Read more