May 01, 2024

Uncrewed but Confident: Forging New Rules of the Road to Avoid Accidental Escalation

This article was originally published in War on the Rocks.

On March 14, 2023, a U.S. Air Force Predator uncrewed aircraft was destroyed after it was struck by a Russian fighter jet in international airspace over the Black Sea. The actions conducted by the Russian fighter, including dumping fuel and flying in front of it, would have constituted a violation of the U.S.-Russia Incidents at Sea agreement — if the aircraft had been crewed.

In a time of growing international tension, with interstate warfare ongoing in Europe and threatened over Taiwan, military forces worldwide are looking increasingly to autonomous and uncrewed systems to provide new capabilities, field forces more quickly and at reduced costs, and reduce risks to military personnel. Given most militaries’ relative lack of experience in operating uncrewed systems, with novel benefits come novel risks: of accidents, miscalculation, and inadvertent conflict. The ongoing large-scale introduction of autonomous and uncrewed systems calls for the development of rule sets and confidence-building measures to mitigate the risks associated with their operational employment.

Air and maritime uncrewed platforms in the Indo-Pacific may be a promising area for developing new confidence-building measures.

While successful confidence-building measures have been rare, there is promise in verifiable measures built on existing maritime and air safety rules. With this in mind, the United States and China should amend existing bilateral agreements to cover uncrewed systems and update multilateral maritime and air rules. The two countries should also work toward establishing standard signals and communications for uncrewed platforms, as well as defining potential exclusion zones for armed uncrewed systems, agreeing to not deploy nuclear weapons on uncrewed systems, and creating mechanisms to indicate loss of control of uncrewed systems. In the absence of U.S.-Chinese agreement, unilateral adoption of confidence-building principles by the United States (and also potentially its allies and partners) could be beneficial. However, scenario exercises indicate that confidence-building measures may be ineffective during full-blown crises, when uncrewed systems could provide stability benefits.

Read the full article from War on the Rocks.

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