Loitering munitions, the Ukraine war, and the drift towards ‘killer robots’.

Switchblade loitering munition flies towards target area. The operator views video feed and then designates which  target the munition should strike.

Loitering munitions are now hitting the headlines in the media as a result of their use in the Ukraine war.  Vivid descriptions of ‘kamikaze drones’ and ‘suicide drones’ outline the way in which these weapons operate: they are able to find targets and fly towards them before crashing into them and exploding.  Both Russia and Ukraine are deploying loitering munitions, which allow soldiers to fire on targets such as tanks and heavy armour without the predictability of a mortar or artillery round firing on a set trajectory.   Under some circumstances these ‘fire and forget’ weapons may be able operate with a high degree of autonomy.  For example they can programmed to fly around autonomously in a defined search area and highlight possible targets such as tanks to the operator.  In these circumstances they can be independent of human control. This trend towards increasing autonomy in weapons systems raising questions about how they might shape the future of warfare and the morality of their use.

Loitering munitions such as these have previously been used to military effect in Syria and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.  Although they are often described as drones, they are in many ways more like a smart missile than an uncrewed aircraft.  Loitering munitions were first developed in the 1980s and can be thought of as a ‘halfway house’ between drones and cruise missiles.  They differ from drones in that they are expendable, and unlike cruise missiles, have the ability to loiter passively in the target area and search for a target.  Potential targets are identified using radar, thermal imaging, or visual sensor data and, to date, a human operator selects the target and executes the command to destroy the target.  They are disposable, one-time use weapons intended to hunt for a target and then destroy it, hence their tag as ‘kamikaze’ weapons.  Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to the Prime Minister describes a loitering munition as a “drone version of the AK-47: a cheap anonymous suicide drone that flies to the target and blows itself up – it’s so cheap you don’t care”.  Read more