June 12, 2021

Use of killer drones in Libya awakens specter of autonomous combat robots

Cthis is not a scene from 2001, a space odyssey, from I, Robot or from Terminator. For the first time in the history of conflict, combat robots could have attacked humans in a completely autonomous way, says an article in the New Scientist published May 27.

Based on a United Nations (UN) Security Council report dated March 8, the scientific weekly describes how autonomous military drones flew into a combat zone, selected targets before attack them, without the intervention of a human operator.

Libya use investigation

Paragraph 63, page 19 of this 556-page report describes Operation “Peace Storm” launched on March 27, 2020 by the Libyan Prime Minister, Faïez Sarraj. The latter enabled him to repel the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose “Logistics convoys and units […] retreating were hunted down and taken away from a distance by combat drones or lethal autonomous weapons systems [SALA en français, LAWS en anglais pour “lethal autonomous weapons systems”], such as STM’s Kargu-2 and other roving ammunition. The lethal autonomous weapon systems had been programmed to attack targets, without the need to establish a data connection between the operator and the ammunition, and were therefore actually in automatic homing mode ”, writes the report.

“Ranger ammunition” is also called “ loitering munitions ”, Or LM, in English, or“ kamikaze drones ”. These aerial drones that contain an explosive fly over the battlefield and can destroy targets by diving into them. The Kargu-2 is a Turkish-made drone. These 7 kilo machines fly at 72 kilometers per hour, have an endurance of thirty minutes and a range of 5 kilometers. They are equipped with an explosive charge and can be piloted by a human or operate autonomously, using cameras “Equipped with artificial intelligence that locates and identifies targets”, explains the New Scientist.

Decryption: Marshal Haftar weakened by growing Turkish involvement

Its use would be an innovation. For the past two decades, armies and groups like the Houthi rebels in Yemen have used drones for reconnaissance or attack. The United States in particular uses it massively, against Al-Qaida, its subsidiary in the Arabian Peninsula (AQPA), the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Somali Islamist groups Al-Chabab or in the Sahel. But they are still controlled by an operator.

Recently, in 2020, in the context of the conflict with Armenia, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry boasted of having inflicted “Heavy losses in men and military equipment” to the opponent. Asked by a Turkish television station, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev said that “Thanks to the fine technology of Turkish drones, armed or unarmed, we have avoided human losses”.

What degree of autonomy?

Jack McDonald, researcher at King’s College London, points out the inaccuracies of the UN report. In a series of posts on Twitter, he believes qu’“There is no clue whether the combat drones” and the “Roving ammunition” hit people or vehicles “. He adds that it is impossible to know what their degree of autonomy.

For his part, Ulrike Franke, researcher at the European Council for International Relations specializing in drones and artificial intelligence, confirms these inaccuracies at World. “The report does not go into the details of autonomous weapons. It simply notes the presence of “ranger ammunition”, in particular the Kargu-2 system, alongside other military systems, such as armed drones, in the Libyan theater, and indicates that “ranger ammunition” has been used in the Libyan theater. an attack on a convoy, she explains. What the report does not do and can’t do –, it is to evaluate the degree of autonomy of the system, that is to say the degree of human supervision or control. “

The researcher adds: “What is not clear to me is why the incident described in the report has become such a hot topic, given that we have known for some time that ‘lurking ammunition’ has been used in several conflicts. “

Indeed, during clashes in 2016 with Azerbaijan, Artsrun Hovhannisyan, spokesperson for the Armenian defense ministry, spoke of the use “A Harop-type drone, made in Israel”, who, “Rather than containing an explosive charge, is itself the ammunition” and “Attacks its targets by destroying itself on it” during the attack on the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Debate at the UN, concern of NGOs

For the researcher, the novelty of the UN report is due to its academic aspect: “He views ‘lurking ammunition’ as lethal autonomous weapon systems. This deserves to be underlined insofar as the United Nations has been debating since 2014, within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the place of lethal autonomous weapons systems and the question of whether their use should be regulated. , limited or prohibited. “

Faced with the risk they represent, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched a “Campaign against killer robots”, claiming that he is “Doubtful that fully autonomous weapons are capable of respecting the standards of international humanitarian law, in particular the rules of distinction, proportionality and military necessity”.