Obama’s drone wars in question

So much has been happening over the US drone warfare program over the last few weeks that it’s hard to keep up.

First, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, instigated an inquiry into the targeted killing programs operated by the USA, largely using drones, and focusing on the issue of civilian casualties. The rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, made it clear that the inquiry would pull no punches and might result in war crimes charges against the US, should evidence be discovered of such crimes.

Second, NBC television in the USA revealed a leaked Justice Department document laying out the legal justification for the targeted assassination of US citizens using drones. The full memo is also available from this link and assembles a tortuous argument about how US citizens can be killed by their own government from above if there an “informed, high-level” official decides that the person has “recently” been involved in undefined “activities” threatening a violent attack against the US and “there is  no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.”

And now, the Washington Post is reporting that the nomination of President Obama’s counter-terrorism guru, John Brennan, to head the CIA, has led to all sorts of revelations and difficult questions for Brennan to answer about the CIA’s targeted assassination program, including the acknowledgement of a secret drone base, at a still undisclosed location, in Saudi Arabia.

A while ago it looked like Obama’s drone strategy was unassailable despite increasing public knowledge via the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and criticisms from groups like the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. Now, this is going mainstream and it’s not looking so good for what former CIA Director, Leon Panetta, called the ‘only game in town’.


US Predator drones in Pakistan

Although the US military has been operated its Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) (both surveillance and weaponized versions) in both Pakistan and Afghanistan for some time now, the Pakistan government is now for the first time reported to be accepting their use as an official part of its own military’s operations in the South Waziristan region. This is the area where it has long been known that some of the most important Taliban and Al-Qaeda groups have been ‘hiding’  – but hiding in pretty much plain sight. More on military drones here and here.

More military robots…

A story in the Daily Mail shows two new military robot surveillance devices developed for the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence and Equipment Support (DES) group. The first is a throwable rolling robot equipped with multiple sensors, which can be chucked like a hand-grenade and then operated by remote-control. The second is another Micro-(Unmanned) Aerial Vehicle (Micro-UAV or MAV), a tiny helicopter which carries a surveillance camera. There have been rolling surveillance robots around for a while now (like the Rotundus GroundBot from Sweden), but this toughened version seems to be unique. The helicopter MAV doesn’t seem to be particularly new, indeed it looks at least from the pictures, pretty similar to the one controversially bought by Staffordshire police in Britain – which is made by MicroDrones of Germany.

The proliferation of such devices in both military and civil use is pretty much unchecked and unnoticed by legislators at present. Media coverage seems to be limited to ‘hey, cool!’ and yes, they are pretty cool as pieces of technology, but being used in useful humanitarian contexts (for example, rolling robots getting pictures of a partially-collapsed building or MAVs flying over a disaster zone) is a whole lot different from warfare, which is a whole lot different again from civilian law enforcement, commercial espionage or simple voyeuristic purposes. As surveillance gets increasingly small, mobile and independent, we have a whole new set of problems for privacy, and despite the fact that we warned regulators about these problems back in 2006 in our Report on the Surveillance Society, little government thought seems to have been devoted to these and other new technologies of surveillance.

The use of robots in war is of course something else I have become very interested in, especially as these flying and rolling sensor-platforms are increasingly independent in their operation and, like the US Predator drones employed in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the MAARS battlefield robot made by Qinetiq / Foster-Miller, become weapons platforms too. This is an urgent but still largely unnoticed international human rights and arms control issue, and one which the new International Committee for Robotic Arms Control (in which I am now getting involved), will hopefully play a leading role in addressing.

India invests in surveillance drones

According to The Times of India, the Indian military is investing massively in boom military industry of the moment – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones).

An IAL Heron TP UAV in flight
An IAL Heron TP UAV in flight

The initial order is apparently for coastal protection and involves the purchase of Heron UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries, a specialist in such technologies which produces everything from large payload drones to tiny micro-UAVs like the Mosquito, which can be launched by hand and is designed for “providing real-time imagery data in restricted urban areas.” The Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) have also been developing their own drones in conjunction with IAI, the latest being the Rustom MALE.

A Predator UAV equiped with Hellfire missile (USAF)
A Predator UAV equiped with Hellfire missile (USAF)

Herons are supposedly unarmed but armed versions were used in the 2006 invasion of Lebanon by Israeli armed forces. The ToI article also makes it clear that Indian forces will be buying more overtly aggressive drones such as the US Predator systems that have been used to such devastating effect against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier regions. Far from easing up on the use of these remote-control killing machines, Obama’s administration has accelerated their use. They put fewer US troops in the firing line, and can attack remote areas, from where it is also very difficult to get an accurate independent view on their activities. However they are alleged to have been massively inaccurate, with the Pakistan government claiming that only 10 out of 60 missions between January 2006 and April 2009 had hit their targets, killing 14 Al-Qaeda leaders and 687 civilians, an appalling ratio.

With the advent of strategic bombing and then the ICBM, the Twentieth Century saw a massive increase of the role of remote surveillance in warfare, which was intimately linked to the growth in destructive power and the ability to not to understand the consequences in any direct or emotional way. Even with the tank and artillery ground warfare was not so remote, but now in the Twenty-first Century we are seeing surveillance-based, remote-control warfare becoming increasingly normalised. It is not surprising to see both hypocritical states like the USA and Israel intimately involved in the promotion of this form of conflict which looks cleaner and more ‘moral’ from the point of view of the user, but which in fact simply further isolates them from the consequences of their action. Real time surveillance turns everyday life in to a simulation, and drone-based warfare makes war into something like a game. And it’s a deadly and amoral game that increasing numbers of states, like India, are now playing.

The robots are coming and now they’re angry…

A mindless drone robot is one thing but an independent robot with a tiny mind capable only of death and destruction – that is something else entirely.

Whilst I was doing my PhD in the late 90s, I met a guy called Steve Wright who used to run the Omega Foundation (who were like the ‘Lone Gunman’ organisation from the X-Files, but for real), and who is now at the Praxis Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He was investigating the development of new forms of automated killing and control systems and ever since then, I’ve been keeping an eye on the development of remote-controlled and increasingly automated surveillance technologies, and in particular the development of robotic devices that are able not only to collect or transfer data, but to respond physically.

Two stories this week reflect the variety of developments in all kinds of different arenas, and raise all sorts of issues around the distancing of human responsibility from material, in many cases, punitive or lethal action.

'Intruder' captured by web-slinging robot
Japanese security robot (AP)

The first was the news that Japanese technologists have produced a mobile remote-controlled robot that can fire a net over ‘intruders’. Until recent years such developments had been carried out largely in the area of military research by organisations like the RAND corporation in the USA. However, particularly since the end of the Cold War when military supply companies started to look to diversify and find new markets in a more uncertain time when the ‘military-industrial complex’ might no longer ensure their profits, there has been a gradual ‘securitization’ of civil life. One consequence of this has been that so-called ‘less-lethal’ weapons are increasing regarded as normal for use in law enforcement, private security organisations and even by individuals.

However a further change has been in the when these operations can be automated when an intermediary technology using sensors of some kind is placed between the person operating them and the person(s) or thing(s) being monitored. This removes the person from the consequences of their action and allows them to place the moral burden of action onto the machine. The operation is aided still more if the machine itself can be ‘humanized’, in the way that Japanese robots so often are. But a kawaii(cute) weaponized robot is still a weaponized robot.

A 'Predator' Drone (USAF)
A 'Predator' Drone (USAF)

In the skies above Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza however, ‘cuteness’ doesn’t matter. Remote-control military machines have been stealthily entering the front lines, colonising the vertical battlespace, with lethal consequences that have not yet been considered enough. This week we saw US unmanned aircraft operated by the CIA kill a total of 21 people in Pakistan, one of the few aspects of Bush-era policy that new President Obama has not (yet) promised to change.

All of these machines are still under some kind of control from human operators, but several profoundly misguided scientists are trying to create systems that are more independent, even ‘intelligent’. This week, I read about Professor Mandyam Srinivasan of Queensland University in Australia who, at least according to a report in The Australian, thinks it is a great idea to give missiles brains like angry bees. A mindless drone robot is one thing but an independent robot with a tiny mind capable only of death and destruction – that is something else entirely. I can think of few things that are less in the spirit of social progress than this, but he’s hardly the only one thinking this way: there are billions of dollars being pumped into this kind of research around the world…