Who wants to ban killer robots?

Despite much talk about a killer robots, few states support a ban. In a new article, Ondřej Rosendorf shows that states lacking capacities to pursue killer robots are most in favour of a ban in addition to states with a strong humanitarian orientation.

The advent of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), also known as “killer robots,” presents one of the most significant developments in current military affairs. The possibility of delegating decisions to use force to machines promises to revolutionize warfare, yet, it also raises serious ethical, legal, and security challenges.

Since 2012, a group of NGOs organized under the umbrella of “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” (CSKR) has been advocating for a preventive prohibition of these systems. Much like previous humanitarian disarmament campaigns against anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, and blinding lasers, the principal justification for the ban on LAWS lies in the potentially adverse impact of their use for the protection of civilians during times of war.

National delegations are currently discussing LAWS in the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which allows imposing prohibitions or restrictions on weapons deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.

While the initial focus of the GGE was open-ended, discussions quickly gravitated to possible regulatory options, including moratoria, codes of conduct, or a positive obligation to maintain “meaningful human control” over weapon systems. Partly due to active advocacy efforts of the CSKR, the call for a preventive prohibition received the most attention, even though the full potential of the technology is unknown, and there is no universally accepted definition of LAWS.

To date, some thirty countries, including Austria and members of the Global South, have aligned themselves with the view of the CSKR, demanding a ban to address the potentially adverse humanitarian implications of weapon autonomy. The composition of this group is peculiar at first glance since – except for Austria – it does not include any Wester-liberal democracies, traditionally associated with the advocacy of humanitarian norms.

Why have the former leaders of campaigns against anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, such as Canada and Norway, not (yet) expressed their support for the call to prohibit LAWS when their potential use threatens to violate fundamental humanitarian norms? Which countries, if not Western-liberal democracies, are likely to join the group of ban supporters?

The main problem with enlisting additional supporters for CSKR’s cause relates to states’ perceptions of the costs and benefits from agreeing to the prospective prohibition and, effectively, foregoing military innovation in LAWS.

For laggards in technological research and development, a total ban presents an intuitively attractive option because it would preclude the widening of the gap in capabilities vis-à-vis those at the frontier of military innovation. They would benefit from prohibition while giving up little to nothing in return (at least in the short term). Conversely, those capable and interested in exploring military applications of autonomy would pay a disproportionately higher price from foregoing the innovation relative to laggards.

To identify the likely and unlikely supporters of the ban, it is therefore imperative to understand the factors that might motivate states to develop or acquire LAWS in the first place.

  • First and foremost, financial and technological capacities constrain states’ innovative potential. In the immediate future, only the most technologically advanced countries would be able to leverage the potential of weapon autonomy effectively.
  • Second, security threats might motivate states to pursue LAWS to gain an advantage over adversaries. Trends in the use of weapon autonomy indicate that these systems could be especially useful for border protection purposes or counterterrorism operations.
  • Third, the nature of domestic-political structures might generate interest in LAWS. Casualty-averse democracies, and control-seeking autocracies, in particular, could derive specific benefits from weapon autonomy. Yet, certain normative beliefs might also dissuade countries from exploring these benefits.

Accordingly, when we look at the group of ban supporters, what characterizes these states is an interplay of lacking capacities and incentives to pursue innovation in LAWS, on the one hand, combined with stronger humanitarian orientation, on the other hand. An exemplary ban supporter is a country with limited financial and technological capacity, neither established democracy nor autocracy, which actively advocates for the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, with deep socialization within the existing arms control and disarmament regimes.

The reluctance of Western-liberal democracies and many other states to endorse the ban partly lies in the potential for leveraging the benefits of LAWS. This does not necessarily mean they are currently developing these systems. However, the increased receptiveness towards such benefits dissuades countries from committing to a preventive prohibition.

The GGE process will continue until the next Review Conference of the CCW in December 2021, but its outcome remains uncertain at this point. To increase their chances for success, campaigners must expand their supporter base exponentially. The easiest way forward would be to focus on countries from the Global South, rather than attempting to enlist the one “champion state” from among Western-liberal democracies.

Although the unregulated development and use of LAWS are not inevitable, the feasibility of preventive prohibition seems dubious if the CSKR expects militarily significant states to accede. If a regulatory framework is to be effective, it must be perceived as fair by all parties. Reaching agreement on the lowest common denominator – potentially a political declaration – constitutes a more realistic (and much needed) outcome in the immediate future.

Ondřej Rosendorf works at the Institue of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Czechia. He is the author of “Predictors of support for a ban on killer robots: Preventive arms control as an anticipatory response to military innovation”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

To ban killer robots, codify human control

The fourth industrial revolution – with automation as its key feature – is in full swing. Militaries around the globe intend to benefit from this development, and so called “autonomy” in weapons systems is on the rise. In a new article, Elvira Rosert and Frank Sauer compare the international humanitarian disarmament processes on blinding laser weapons, anti-personnel landmines and lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) aka “killer robots.” Emphasizing that weapon autonomy differs substantially from past issues, the authors argue that the international campaign against LAWS cannot rely on simply modeling their effort after past successes. Instead of aiming to define and ban LAWS as a category of weapons, the use of autonomy in weapons should be regulated through codifying a positive obligation to retain human control.

Since 2013, the international community has been discussing LAWS at the United Nations in Geneva. The main venue of this debate is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a framework convention tasked with restricting or prohibiting weapons deemed to have indiscriminate effects or to be excessively injurious. This diplomatic process is owed in large part to a global coalition of 160 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in 66 countries, coordinated in the joint “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” (KRC), tirelessly raising awareness of the legal, ethical, and security concerns accompanying weapon autonomy.

In its effort, the campaign is employing tried-and-tested strategy elements successfully applied in previous humanitarian disarmament processes that resulted in the bans on blinding laser weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. This includes public awareness-raising, the dissemination of expertise to the general public as well as to the diplomats working on the issue, and building coalitions with powerful voices in the CCW such as, for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, while these strategy elements are indeed conducive to the campaign’s goal of creating new, binding international law on weapon autonomy, others are not. 

A key problem is the campaign’s framing of the issue as one of “killer robots”. For every successful humanitarian disarmament campaign, a simple, powerful and dramatic message (like “blinding is cruel” or “landmines maim civilians”) is indispensable. By invoking pictures of the Terminator, the “killer robots” label resonates well with the public and conveys an existential threat – however, it also inevitably renders the issue futuristic and thus much less urgent. This “sci-fi-feel” stifles progress in the CCW, where ban opponents use it to declare the negotiations a premature, speculative discussion about future military technologies.

More importantly, the “killer robots” frame obscures the complex and polymorphous nature of weapon autonomy that sets the issue apart from both blinding lasers and landmines, creating several challenges. First, the variations of what “killer robots” might look like are endless. Every conceivable future tank, plane, boat, submarine, or swarm of such systems could potentially be deemed a lethal autonomous weapons system. Second, no system would even be discernible as autonomous by looking at it – in fact, whether a weapons system is remotely piloted, and thus under human control while in operation, or whether it is autonomous, that is, finding, fixing, tracking, selecting, and engaging targets without human intervention, is impossible to know from the outside. The difference will eventually be nothing but a checkbox in its software’s user interface. Third, future weapons systems will increasingly be spatially distributed, raising the tricky question, “where and when [a LAWS] begins and ends”, as Maya Brehm puts it.

Consequently, LAWS, in contrast to other weapons like blinding lasers or landmines, do not constitute a clearly definable category, or at least not one that is inclusive and exclusive. Stigmatizing LAWS is thus much harder and, in addition, complicated by the fact that some applications of weapon autonomy, for instance in terminal defense systems against incoming munitions, are protecting human life and barely raising any humanitarian concerns.

Nevertheless, the legal, ethical, and security concerns raised by campaigners are valid – but finding some common “definition of LAWS” that aims at categorically separating them from “non-LAWS” is not the way to go. Instead, to get a regulatory grasp on weapon autonomy, campaigners and the international community are challenged to collectively stipulate how future targeting processes should be designed so that the use of military force remains under human control that is meaningful, as in, not just a mindless pushing of buttons. 

It is therefore encouraging that the CCW deliberations have begun shifting from the futile search for a categorical definition of LAWS toward gauging the role of the “human element,” that is, the creation of conditions to retain meaningful human control over weapons systems. One of our suggestions to the campaign is to explicitly acknowledge this shift and adjust its messaging accordingly, away from “banning killer robots” and towards “codifying meaningful human control” as a principle requirement in international humanitarian law. The goal is to regulate when a machine and when a human is deciding what, that is, performing which function in the decision-making cycle of finding, fixing, tracking, selecting, and engaging a target. The answers undoubtedly will differ – depending on the operational context and the target (that for instance, might be an incoming missile or a human being). But while banning killer robots this way is tricky, it at least is feasible.

Elvira Rosert is a Junior Professor for International Relations at Universität Hamburg and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg. Frank Sauer is a Senior Researcher at Bundeswehr University Munich. They are the authors of “How (not) to stop the killer robots: A comparative analysis of humanitarian disarmament campaign strategies”, Contemporary Security Policy, and of “Prohibiting Autonomous Weapons: Put Human Dignity First”, Global Policy 10: 3, 370-375.

THAAD and South Korea’s alliance dilemma

The July 2016 decision of South Korea to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) triggered unprecedented retaliation from China even though Seoul and Washington conceded that THAAD could not protect the capital region of Republic of Korea (ROK). In a recent article, Yong Sub Choi analyses why the South Korean government decided to deploy THAAD anyway. 

To answer this puzzle, it is necessary to connect the THAAD deployment in South Korea with the U.S. conception of a strategic rebalancing to Asia. Seoul’s THAAD decision was primarily intended to sustain and strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance amid escalating nuclear threats by North Korea and deepening Sino-American rivalry. Placing the current state of the alliance at the center of its investigation into this controversial issue, the article pays particular heed to the ongoing adjustments being made between the two powers to better cope with the rise of China. Thus, by examining the underlying causes of the THAAD decision, it can also contribute to an understanding of the reconfiguration of the alliance amid the growing rivalry between the United States and China.

Conceptually, this article links South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD with contemporary alliance politics in relation to extended deterrence and abandonment and entrapment risks. First, the deployment of THAAD on the peninsula itself may improve the security of South Korea by enhancing the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence through its contribution to the defense of U.S. territories and U.S. forces in East Asia and the western Pacific.

Second, the United States, following its rebalancing strategy, applied increasing pressure on South Korea to install THAAD on its soil, which decided to comply owing to much higher costs of abandonment of the alliance in the face of, most of all, possible nuclear attacks by North Korea. Technically, unlike what the South Korean government has publicly claimed, THAAD has only limited direct utility for the protection of South Koreans from North Korean missile. However, the THAAD deployment can contribute to its national security in a strategic way by reinforcing the U.S.-ROK alliance.  

Once deployed on the Korean peninsula, THAAD can substantially enhance the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence by providing an additional layer of defense for U.S. territories and U.S. forces in East Asia and the western Pacific. The credibility of extended deterrence is determined by a complex mix of factors, where what counts is the degree of contribution by the client state to the national interest of the patron state. The deployment of THAAD in South Korea provides significant benefits for the United States, such that the former offers strategically important advantages to the latter, including enhanced protection of U.S. territories from North Korean and Chinese ICBMs and containing China’s military expansion in the South and East China Seas amid growing tensions between the two superpowers. 

The wide gap in military capability between the United States and South Korea and the existence of North Korea have put the relationship between the two democracies on an asymmetrical footing, which required South Korea to adopt behaviors that were consistent with the former’s strategic interest, to a greater or lesser degree. The United States, following its rebalancing strategy, asked South Korea to side with it as it contained China’s military expansion with THAAD deployment as arguably the most important task for that ally at that moment. In the presence of escalating nuclear threats by North Korea, which heightened the costs of abandonment even further, South Korea decided to deploy THAAD, although it acknowledged that China would likely retaliate against South Korea for the decision. Seoul, showing a nuanced understanding of the alliance security dilemma, made this strategic choice because it believed that the costs of being abandoned by Washington surpassed those of being entrapped in conflicts with Beijing. 

The most important strategic considerations for the United States at the global level involve dealing with or balancing China. By strengthening the U.S.-ROK alliance and providing its assistance to the United States to contain China’s military expansion, South Korea can bolster its status as a reliable ally, which is vital for taking the initiative in settling North Korean nuclear issue peacefully.

The growing tensions between the United States and China can bring harm to many countries’ national interests across the world. Nevertheless, it is rare to find countries, such as South Korea, which would so severely suffer both militarily and economically in the event of discord or conflict between the two superpowers. South Korea can contribute to improving strained relations between them only to a limited extent, but it can still minimize them, at least as regards North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, by pursuing peace on the Korean peninsula in a manner that both sides can agree with. 

If ongoing international efforts to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs go awry, the tensions between the United States and China could be exacerbated even further. In that case, in response to U.S. demands, South Korea would not be able to avoid risking entrapment again in strife with China because of the nuclear threat that North Korea poses. Then, the degree of retaliation from China would be more severe than the one it imposed in the wake of South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD in 2016.

Yong Sub Choi teaches at Seoul National University. He is the author of “Keeping the Americans in: The THAAD deployment on the Korean peninsula in the context of Sino-American rivalry”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Why China bothers about THAAD Missile Defense

The United States has announced that it will deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to the Republic of Korea. China has objected as it fears encirclement. The United States should continue to engage with China via official and other channels to mitigate concerns and avoid misperceptions.

On July 8, 2016, South Korea and the United States announced the decision to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to the Republic of Korea. The THAAD defense system will eventually be deployed and operated by U.S. Forces in Korea (USKF) “to protect alliance military forces … and not directed toward any third-party nations.” The purpose of the deployment was to establish a defense against the growing North Korean missile threat. China, however, has strongly objected. Chinese analysts argue that the THAAD radar will be able to surveil the entire Chinese mainland.

To reassure China that the range of the radar is limited, the United States had offered to provide a technical briefing to China on the system on the sidelines of the most recent Nuclear Security Summit. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced: “We realize China may not believe us and also proposed to go through the technology and specifications with them … and prepared to explain what the technology does and what it doesn’t do and hopefully they will take us up on that proposal.” China declined the offer. Commenting on the issues, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said that China does not view matter “as simply a technical one.”

Hong Lei is correct. The matter is not a technical one. China fears encirclement by the United States and its allies. It is not the THAAD radar that is impelling official Chinese objection. The radar would not be able to provide any new information beyond what the United States is already capable of obtaining. The U.S. early warning satellites can already track the heat signatures of missiles (including Chinese missiles) during their powered flight throughout the world. The THAAD radar would have to be able to observe “the decoy-deployment process of [Chinese] strategic missiles” after missile burnout to affect the Chinese deterrent in a meaningful fashion. It then has to continue to track and discriminate warheads and decoys. However, the operating parameters of the THAAD radar, proposed for possible deployment in South Korea, cannot permit it to track warhead and decoys launched along trajectories of Chinese Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) heading to the United States.

Presuming parameters within reasonable margins, a THAAD radar would have a maximum range of approximately 800 kilometers under even highly optimistic conditions. As shown in Figure 1 below, at a range of 800 kilometers, a THAAD radar deployed in South Korea would have essentially zero ability to track and discriminate Chinese missiles heading to the United States. Even one possible trajectory that might be momentarily observable could be lofted to avoid THAAD radar detection.

Figure 1. Coverage of THAAD Radar (with 800-Kilometer Range) against Strategic Chinese Missiles. Note: The blue dots represent the locations of mobile Chinese ICBM units. The black dot represents the locations of silo-based Chinese ICBM units. The red lines represent the trajectories of Chinese silo-based/mobile ICBM missiles. Finally, the yellow dome represents the extent of an 800-kilometer range THAAD radar located in Pyeongtaek, near Seoul.

So, what is motivating Chinese opposition to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea? A prominent argument is that even mild U.S. missile defense postures in the region will over time accumulate increasing capabilities, and can, therefore, be quickly converted to a larger threatening posture. Some Chinese claim that the United States is beginning to form a balancing coalition with Japan and South Korea with the intent to encircle China with an interlinked missile defense system. Others argue that this possibility would fundamentally alter the strategic balance and stability between the U.S. and China and, in turn, could force China to increase its nuclear arsenal.

It is certainly in neither nation’s interest to foster such increases in nuclear weapons. Recognizing this, the U.S. has repeatedly pointed out that the regional missile defense systems do not and are not intended to alter the strategic stability. For example, the recent U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review stated: “Engaging China in discussions of U.S. missile defense plans is also an important part of our international efforts … maintaining strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship is as important to the administration as maintaining strategic stability with other major powers.” The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review also made similar commitments.

The United States should continue to engage with the Chinese on both official and other channels to mitigate concerns and avoid misperceptions. Misinformation and misperception should not be fueling disagreements. However, such engagements also need to take into account Chinese offensive missile capabilities. Currently, ranges of Chinese missiles extend to U.S. bases as far away as Guam. China is also believed to have around 1,200 short-range missiles. China’s medium-range missile inventory may include as many as 400 CSS-6 missiles (with a range of 600 kilometers) and around 85 CSS-5 missiles (with a range of 1,750 kilometers). China also possesses a significant number of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Why does China need such a large arsenal of offensive missiles? One potential explanation is that these missiles could target U.S. forward-deployed forces, allied forces and bases in the region. Under such a scenario, missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region could offer limited defenses against Chinese short- and medium- range missiles, thereby strengthening regional deterrence and stability. If China, indeed, wants to limit U.S. missile defenses in the Asia-Pacific, it should cooperatively work to diminish the threats from all missile arsenals in Northeast Asia.

Jaganath Sankaran is a Research Scholar, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), University of Maryland, College Park, USA. Bryan L. Fearey is Director, National Security Office, Los Alamos National Laboratories, Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA. They are the authors of “Missile defense and strategic stability: Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38, forthcoming. It is available here.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Energy or any other U.S. government agency.

Un(wo)manned Aerial Vehicles: How UAVs Influence Masculinity In The Conflict Arena

CSP_Blog_16_01_KunashakaranAs a result of the introduction of drones (or UAVs), there have been numerous studies on the moral and ethical uses of an asymmetrical warfare, a war where one side is vastly superior to the other. However, not much research has been done into the intrinsic effects of these technologies.

How do they affect soldiers? How do they transform the role of gender in the society? Are they really the “silver bullet” that policymakers have been looking for: a machine that keeps troops far away from the ugliness of war? Or do they in fact bring the conflict zone closer than ever before?

Albert Camus once said that “there are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for”. With the technological advancements of drones and the continuous distancing of troops from the warzone, the question is not so much of what militaries would kill for, but rather how they could potentially suffer from the kill.

Talking about masculinity and militaries can get rather tense. And a full article on it seems to simply suck all the air out of the room. However, with the technological advancements that push soldiers further and further away from the battlezone, we need to give more thought to such abstract ideas.

The Evolution of Technology and The Role of Women

Today’s women are beginning to lead in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In institutions that are considered “manly”, women are beginning to play a leading role. And with the introduction of technology, neither mere brute strength nor physical prowess are deciding factors of what makes an ideal combatant.

When studying the changing dynamics of a conflict zone, gender is increasingly a key consideration.CSP_Blog_16_01_Kunashakaran_wecandoit

With the increasing use of UAVs, and similar distancing technologies that seek to protect troops, it is also time we talked about how women play a role with the technologies that dominate the conflict arena.

Back in the 20th century, World War II had a strong influence on women and the workforce. During this period, fields that were usually reserved for men suddenly saw a previously untapped demographic. An example are the very iconic “Rosie The Riveter” posters. This thrust helped to change the futur
e of the world, and of women in the workforce.

More recently, the US Army has begun to open up previously “men-only” positions to women. But do current deeply-entrenched norms and values in a rather male-dominated society give way that easily? Does the continuous chase for the ultimate killing machine transform traditional masculinity?

The Latent Psychological Effects of Combatant Technology

When writing my article on the influence of UAVs on gender dynamics, it made me think of how we approach the very tricky subject of humanity. Studying the various effects that arise with the increasing distancing of the warzone, I observed that sometimes hardest part is to reconcile the conflict going on “within”.

A stark finding were the significant levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that drone operators suffer from, even when far away from the warzone. This seems counter-intuitive to introducing a technology that “protects” combatants. It is precisely for this reasons that we need to further delve into these latent psychological effects.

PTSD seems to be caused by the incredibly complex juxtaposition of having to constantly switch between a combatant mind-set and then stepping out of the airbase to go home interacting with family or everyday society. This constant psychological switch takes a toll of previously unobserved magnitude on the individual.

Critical Policy Considerations for the Future

This is why, more so than soldiers on the ground, structural policies need to address a vast number of psychological, emotional and social factors. It also begs the question of when we are going to consider the aspect of human fallibility in the design of technologies?

Every day we hear more about robots and cyborgs taking over aspects of daily lives of humans. A rather (seemingly) un-gendered entity encroaches upon humanity and sufficient focus needs to be placed on policies that address this changing dimension. And in the fields of security and the military, advancements in technology keep the battlefield far away from home, with the ease of eliminating an individual resting on an operator’s fingertips.

With the future of warfare teetering on the edge of humanity, the increase of distancing technology in the conflict zone could potentially give individuals a more cavalier attitude towards conflict, resulting in ideas that violence is a need, rather than a last resort. After all, it is a clean war. And human lives are simply collateral damage.

A key consideration for policymakers should be to be a little more introspective, rather than to go out guns blazing and causing irreparable damage to humanity.

Sumita Kunashakaran is currently based in Singapore and is an Associate Consultant at Strategic Moves Pte Ltd and an External Consultant at Asia Aviation Services Pte Ltd. She is the author of “Un(wo)manned aerial vehicles: an assessment of how unmanned aerial vehicles influence masculinity in the conflict arena”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.37, No.1, 2016, pp.31-61 which she completed during her Masters in International Relations at The University of Edinburgh. Access here