Advances in artificial intelligence and platform performance raise the prospect that lethal remote-controlled systems will become increasingly autonomous.

The current United States administration’s use of armed drones to target terrorists in places like Pakistan and Yemen is only the most visible move towards the use of robotics in war. Remote-controlled aerial-surveillance technology dates back to at least the mid-1990s, when the well-known Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was deployed in the Balkan wars. But unmanned combat did not appear until the Predator was outfitted with precision missiles in early 2001, making its combat debut that autumn in Afghanistan. Since then, and especially after remote-controlled systems specifically designed for the use of deadly force started to be fielded, ethical issues have been raised about the use of force by operators thousands of miles from harm’s way. Still, with each platform tethered to at least one human who made the fire decision, debate remained relatively subdued.

The discussion surrounding robotic warfare has now intensified. Technological advances in artificial intelligence and platform performance have raised the prospect that lethal remote-controlled systems will become increasingly autonomous. Driven by military competition with its adversaries – who are also seeking to exploit the military potential of robotics – the United States and its allies could field unmanned aerial, ground and even sea and underwater systems that can make a lethal fire decision without a human directly involved. Budgetary and thus personnel constraints, the electromagnetic connection issues of remote-controlled platforms and the increasing speed of warfare are also driving forces. Civilian and military leaders will face the challenge of reconciling the desire to do whatever possible to reduce the risk to their warfighters with the necessity of accounting for the laws of armed conflict and broader ethical issues.

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Elinor Sloan is Professor of International Relations at Carleton University, Ottawa and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Her most recent book is Modern Military Strategy (Routledge, 2012).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October-November 2015

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