New MoD document recognises legal, ethical and moral issues raised by use of armed drones

The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems (click image to open PDF)

The UK Ministry of Defence has published a new document, to “inform and prompt wider debate” on military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones.   The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems is a Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) that examines technological and scientific issues related to current and future use of armed and unarmed drones. It  also sets out, for the first time, what it sees as the legal, moral and ethical issues that arise from using such systems.

Arguing that unmanned aircraft now hold a central role in modern warfare, it states “there is a real possibility that, after many false starts and broken promises, a technological tipping point is approaching that may well deliver a genuine revolution in military affairs.”

The publication of this report is very much to be welcomed, in particular its recognition of the serious moral, ethical and legal issues at stake  with the growing use of  unmanned drones and autonomous systems.   At just over 100 pages long the document covers a lot of ground but in this initial review I want to focus on three particular issues.   

Framing the Debate:  On not calling a spade, a spade

As has been the case for some time, when talking about unmanned drones, the use of the term ‘drone’ is an absolute ‘no no’ within the military.  While ‘unmanned aircraft’ or ‘unmanned aerial system’ is seen as acceptable, the term ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ is suggested as appropriate, the document says,  “when talking to the media.”   While it may well be true that this is in part to avoid confusion, it is to counter, one of the key weaknesses to the future development of UAVs identified by the document: the  “public perception issue”.   By avoiding the term ‘drone’ it is perhaps hoped that negative perception of the ‘killer drones’ variety can simply be avoided. 

The document also argues strongly against the idea that any drones currently under development could or should be called ‘autonomous ‘suggesting instead that they are in fact merely ‘automated’.  “Those [drones] that carry out their entire mission from take-off to landing without human intervention may be said to be fully automated” it argues.  Taking what could be said to be a maxim approach to the issue of autonomy,  the document argues that machines or systems can only truly be called autonomous when they are self aware or their understanding is indistinguishable from humans;  

“Autonomous systems will, in effect, be self-aware and their response to inputs indistinguishable from, or even superior to, that of a manned aircraft. As such, they must be capable of achieving the same level of situational understanding as a human” says the document.  

This would be a substantially different definition of ‘autonomy’ than is being used by many scientists and companies involved in developing autonomous systems as the document itself recognizes:  “Companies may describe their systems to be autonomous even though they would not be considered as such under the military definition.”

I imagine the reason for taking this position, is again in part for public perception reasons.  However  there are other key reasons for not wanting to label drones as autonomous as the document clearly recognizes: “The distinction between autonomous and automated is important as there are moral, ethical and legal implications regarding the use of autonomous unmanned aircraft.” 

While this new document is an important step forward by the MoD in acknowledging that there are legal, ethical and moral issues associated with the growing use of drones, at the same time the document wants to frame the debate and keep it on its own terms.  

Humans:  In, on, or out of the loop?

Legally humans are required to make the final decision with regard to firing of weapons from drones.  This is known as humans being ‘in the loop’.  However we know that industry is developing systems that will mean humans moving from being ‘in the loop’ to  being ‘on the loop’,  that is monitoring several armed drones at the same time. The new document notes this change and acknowledges that the growing development of autonomous (sorry, automated) drones, means that the legal requirement is “being eroded”.  

At one point the document tries to clearly states  that the MoD has no plans to enable drones to independently make decisions about firing it weapons:

“It should be noted that the MOD currently has no intention to develop systems that operate without human intervention in the weapon command and control chain, but it is looking to increase levels of automation where this will make systems more effective”

But the issue of drones deciding themselves whether to launch weapons is not completely ruled out as this key passage, shows:    

“A human-authorised [drone] attack would be no different to that by a manned aircraft and would be fully compliant with the LOAC [Laws of Armed Conflict], provided the human believed that, based on the information available, the attack met LOAC requirements and extant ROE [Rules of Engagement].  From this position, it would be only a small technical step to enable an unmanned aircraft to fire a weapon based solely on its own sensors, or shared information, and without recourse to higher, human authority. Provided it could be shown that the controlling system appropriately assessed the LOAC principles (military necessity; humanity; distinction and proportionality) and that ROE were satisfied, this would be entirely legal.

 In practice, such operations would present a considerable technological challenge and the software testing and certification for such a system would be extremely expensive as well as time consuming. Meeting the requirement for proportionality and distinction would be particularly problematic, as both of these areas are likely to contain elements of ambiguity requiring sophisticated judgement. Such problems are particularly difficult for a machine to solve and would likely require some form of artificial intelligence to be successful. Estimates of when artificial intelligence will be achieved (as opposed to complex and clever automated systems) vary, but the consensus seems to lie between more than 5 years and less than 15 years, with some outliers far later than this…  Until such a capability is achieved it is likely that, apart from some niche tasks, human intervention will continue to be required at key stages of an unmanned aircraft’s mission if it involves weapon-delivery.”

There are very serious legal not to mention ethical and moral issues raised by the prospect of unmanned systems deciding themselves whether to launch their weapons.  The MoD’s  assurances that they are not currently, as they put it developing these systems, while at the same time blurring the distinction between ‘autonomous’ and ‘automated’ is unhelpful.  This together with the fact that exploration  into the “the technological challenge” to achieve such a capability appears to be continuing is extremely worrying.   It would be helpful if the MoD  simply, clearly and unambiguously ruled out the idea of humans being ‘out of the loop’ when it comes to launching weapons. 

Will Remote War means More War?

We have argued for some time that the geographical and psychological  distance between the drone operator launching weapons and the point of attack may mean in practice that the threshold for launching weapons may be reduced.  In addition, the fact that remote war is undertaken at no risk to your own forces also may mean that there is a greater temptation to undertake armed attacks and assassinations.  The authors of the document raises this issue too in a section on ethical and moral issues:

“One of the contributory factors in controlling and limiting aggressive policy is the risk to one’s own forces. It is essential that, before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) that we consider this issue and ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”

However, the document also argues that this negative must be “tempered” by the fact that “the use of unmanned aircraft prevents the potential loss of aircrew lives and is thus in itself morally justified.”

 The authors argue that “what is needed is a clear understanding of the issues involved so that informed decisions can be made.”  We would, of course support this point and would argue that in a democratic society it should not be a matter for military or legal experts to make a these important  decision but there needs to be a genuine public debate.

Further comments

I will be reflecting further on this interesting and fascinating insight in the MoD’s thinking on drones over the next few weeks.  I’d be really interested in your comments too!

UK Has Five Reapers in Service: RAF staff officer speaks about Reaper operations

British Reaper in Afghanistan

Wing Commander Chris Thirtle, from the Remotely Piloted Air Systems Strategy unit at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), confirmed last night that the UK currently has five Reaper drones in active service. Speaking at Science Policy Centre event at the Royal Society in central London, Chris Thirtle said he could not confirm  for security reasons whether the Reapers were all in Afghanistan.  This may simply be the UK military secrecy culture in operation or could perhaps suggest that Reapers are also operating in other locations such as Iraq. 

Wing Commander Chris Thirtle spoke about the use of Reaper drones in Afghanistan although he refused to use the term ‘drone’ arguing that as Reapers were remotely piloted’ they should not be called drones. 

The focus of the event was on whether increasing autonomy in military systems should be allowed or controlled.  Chris Thirtle repeated current UK policy that there is a ‘man-in the-loop’ with regard to decisions about whether to launch weapons but argued that “there are limited circumstances where autonomous systems could be used.” 

Chris Thirtle also refuted the suggestion that drone operators are susceptible to a ‘playstation mentality’ arguing that there was little or no difference from launching weapons from an aircraft  a few thousand feet from a target instead of 8,000 miles away. Indeed, he suggested that the ‘persistence’ of observation allowed to Reaper operators gave greater time for consideration about whether to launch weapons or not. Pressed about the recent US military inquiry which found that a drone operator had ‘played down’ the prescence of civilians in a convoy leading to 23 civilians death, Wing Commander said that was a US operation and he couldn’t really comment.

As is well know the British Reapers  are currently operated by 39 Squadron currently based at Creech AFB in Nevada.  I asked Wing Commander Thirtle  after the event whether about rumours that 39 Squadron were coming home to Lincolnshire.  He said that although the RAF had made the ‘business case’ to have ten Reapers, and at that level it might make sense for the Reaper Squadron to be based in the UK, the  question of the number of Reapers to be procured was now part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and a decision had yet to be made.  In addition, Chris Thirtle stated that there was ‘synergy’ to be gained from having the US and UK Reaper being operated from the same location.   On a side note, in response to a question from one of the other presentations at the event, Professor Juergen Altmann, from Technische Universität in Germany about whether the Reapers had been registered under the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty, Chris Thirtle stated that as the Reapers were not operating in the area covered by the Treaty they had not been registered.

While many questions about UK Reaper drone operations remain unanswered the presentation by Wing Commander Thirtle was helpful and a hopeful sign that the UK MoD may be willing to be more accountable to the public about UK drone operations