Abu Muqawama retains its autonomy and the views and beliefs expressed within the blog do not reflect those of CNAS. Abu Muqawama retains the right to delete comments that include words that incite violence; are predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass; or degrade people on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. In summary, don't be a jerk.
Human Rights Watch recently put out a
demanding a ban on fully autonomous weapons system and more scrutiny, as well
as additional legal controls, to regulate the development and proliferation of
robotic weapons. Human Rights Watch wants an international treaty prohibiting
weapons that either “deliver force under the oversight of a human operator who
can override the robot’s actions,” and “robots that are capable of selecting
targets and delivering force without any human input or interaction.” In their
report, seeking to advance policy to prevent indiscriminate warfare, they
instead perpetuate a large degree of misperceptions about the way in which
militaries operate in addition to needless fear-mongering about fully
autonomous weapons which are highly unlikely to ever exist.
The first major problem is that HRW even has a category of “human-out-of-the-loop weapons” which are supposedly going to enter modern warfare. This is, needless to say, a logically ludicrous concept. No weapon is fully capable of taking humans out of the loop, unless it is part of its own command structure. The distinction HRW draws between “Human-on-the-Loop Weapons” and “Human-out-of-the-loop” weapons is totally arbitrary, particularly since one key criteria HRW draws is that “human-on-the-loop” weapons have human oversight which can override and veto their actions, and “human-out-of-the-loop” weapons do not.
Unless the U.S. were to design a weapon that, upon activation, simply began doing whatever its programming told it to do and nothing else, a “human-out-of-the-loop” weapon does not and will not exist. Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason for a human to want to deploy such a weapon. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what commanding officer wants to swap out his subordinates with a machine that is going to be less responsive to his orders?
Weapons fall into a command structure. Every weapon, regardless of its level of autonomy, will conduct missions designed by humans and carried out under human orders, supervised by humans with superior power over it. Indeed, comparable to human subordinates, a “human-on-the-loop” weapon gives a commander more opportunities to micromanage combat performance. If anything, a commander has fewer opportunities to scapegoat subordinates for the actions of an autonomous system.
HRW worries victims of “fully autonomous” weapons cannot confront those who have wronged them in court, which somehow obviates accountability through commanding officer. Supposedly, the entity pulling the trigger is essential to the aversion and prosecution of war crimes. But in this sense, robots do not change much of anything. Artillery gunners and their commanding officers, for example, frequently lack the information necessary to assess whether their fire mission is fully lawful or ethical. They are dependent on the wisdom of the people calling in and ordering the strike. The pilot of an F-16 flying at hundreds of miles an hour frequently lacks adequate ability to judge whether his target, particularly infrastructure targets, are legitimate or not. He relies, as a robotic aircraft would rely, on the wisdom of those who collected the intelligence on his targets, who have eyes on it from the ground who, if necessary, can correct how he deploys his munitions.
There is nothing inherently indiscriminate about an autonomous weapon, even if we assume it is going to face permanent inability to assess every single criterion of discriminate force vis-a-vis a human infantryman. An autonomous weapon using conventional munitions ought be assessed contextually. A weapon or munition that is discriminate for destroying a tank battalion in the open is probably not discriminate for clearing snipers out of a populated urban center.
Some weapons are so indiscriminate in a range of normal military contexts, and indeed without redeeming virtues of strategic efficacy that might justify them as proportional instruments, that banning them is relatively effective and prudent. There is very little discrimination possible with a chemical weapon whose physical nature makes selecting individual targets nigh impossible, or a biological weapon, which, once deployed, will continue operating fully autonomously with no possible human input. Not only that, but these weapons were so frequently operationally or strategically useless - and indeed, very dangerous to one’s own side - that it was entirely reasonable to put in place an outright prohibition. Even then, many militaries frequently commit violations of chemical weapons protocols by employing less-lethal gasses such as C-series agents and white phosphorous that have legitimate uses when it seems tactically prudent.
The attempt to blanket ban autonomous weapons relies on a blanket presumption of failure to discriminate that fails to take into account the way militaries operate. A commanding officer deploying autonomous weapons should know the limits of his system. An unmanned aerial system which can evade and engage hostile targets should not be allowed to select target types such as civilian vehicles or groups of individuals, nor should an autonomous weapon which cannot distinguish between civilians and soldiers with high enough reliability be emplaced in a city. This is just as we would not permit a jet attack aircraft to select and engage its own ground targets in a similarly populated area.
Autonomous weapons receive orders and can be programmed with rules of engagement. If these safeguards fail occasionally, this is not a particularly convincing argument. After all, look at the record of U.S. attempts to enforce roadblocks in Iraq. An infantryman may, seeing a civilian vehicle speeding towards his checkpoint, kill civilians in error because he is tried or concerned with protecting his life and those of his fellow soldiers. Humans disobey orders and make judgment calls about ROE or commander’s intent all the time, whether they are in or out of the loop of their CO. Indeed, we could select a great number of alternate scenarios where a robot that has no fear for its own life, and no programmed ability to refuse or deviate from orders, may be more willing to enforce a strict ROE to the letter. This is not to impugn human combatants or to praise robots, but to note that autonomous weapons, like all weapons, will have limits and advantages.
So what if a commander cannot discipline or punish a robot? He can do things that he cannot do to a human deviating from orders. He can override its actions. Even if that mechanism fails, he could remotely self-destruct or destroy the robot in the midst of its commission of war crimes. A robot Calley is, in many ways, easier to deal with than a human war criminal. It is much less ethically difficult to deactivate or destroy a malfunctioning robot than to kill one of your men or women. Not only that, but the information collected and stored by a robotic weapon would prove much more useful in the prosecution of a war crime committed by a robot-operating unit than the testimony of soldiers who must grapple with the limits of human sense, psyche, and loyalty to each other.
HRW’s argument, then, seems so overbroad as to likely be utterly ineffectual. Much as when Britain tried to ban submarines during the Washington Naval Treaty as being inherently indiscriminate and criminal because of the specific role they played in World War I, no power with the capability to take advantage of the huge military benefits of adopting these weapons is likely to forgo them for a blanket treaty, if they even buy into such a treaty at all.
One might justify HRW’s piece as starting a conversation - and I join that conversation by saying the specifics of their proposal and the view they adopt of autonomous technology are utterly ill-considered. There can and should be limitations on the way weapons can be used. But for the great majority of weapons in the human arsenal, these need to be thought of contextually rather than rigidly. Like it or not, autonomous weapons are already present, and states are going to use weapons with considerably efficacious attributes. But measuring the legality of autonomous weapons against higly specific scenarios against the standards that very often seem to ignore how militaries and the human beings in them behave on the battlefield is the wrong way to start this debate, and certainly not a sound foundation for credible regulations of their use. There are many reasons to start a debate. What HRW appears to aim to do is to strangle it in the crib on the basis of hyperbolic supposition. I strain to think of arms control beginning from such a premise which has had lasting or beneficial effect.