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Banning Killer Robots the Non-Conventional Way: The Case for Preventive Arms Control

Alina Toporas

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Pressure is amounting for the UN to outlaw lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Notwithstanding the letter signed by 116 Governmental Experts to the United Nations urging it to ban the development and use of LAWS and despite of the fact that the UK government has given various warnings regarding the possibility of terrorists using killer robots to launch deadly attacks around Europe, Russia has made it crystal clear that it will not sign any treaties forbidding their use giving multiple justifications supporting their stance.

Firstly, Russia argues that there is a heightened risk of putting in harm’s way the developing of capabilities from the civilian artificial intelligence sectors which could, in turn, deprive millions of people of the latest technological advancements. In this sense, Russian officials are arguing that it is inacceptable for the legal work on LAWS to ‘restrict the freedom to enjoy the benefits of autonomous technologies being the future of humankind’. Secondly, in a report by DefenseOne.com, the Russian Federation takes a more practical approach by identifying as the biggest obstacle in agreeing with the position adopted by the UN, the fact that not enough ‘working samples of such weapons systems’ are being made available for the military to assess its advantages and disadvantages.

Overall, it has become clear to policymakers and security analysts around the world that Russia’shard-line position against the ban on LAWS by the UN, together with its actual manufacturing of these sorts of lethal weapons to be used in combat, shouldn’t come as a surprise. At many international forums in which Russian attendees from the government are present, the importance placed on the sovereignty of nations allowing them to ‘pursue their own political/military/economic course’  is stressed by Russian officials which could be used as a way of explaining Russia’s viewpoints on the legal LAWS debate. As unsurprising as that may appear, it is not to say that this highly pressing issue does notmerit considerable attention in future high-level discussions.Bearing in mind Russia’s clear stance and the gravitas of the matter, it is imperative to discuss the ways in which we can employ arms control to regulate LAWS which are on the verge of earning the title of the 3rd Revolution in Military Affairs.

To state the obvious,traditional arms control treaties concerning new technologies are not always the panacea they are envisioned to be.As a case in point, Russia continued to use cluster munitions in the Syrian war blatantly disregarding the treaty on cluster munitions adopted in the UN. It goes without saying that these watershed machineries, such as the aforementioned cluster munitions or the LAWS, do not automatically presume supererogatory harm, as opposed to their elderly counterparts (i.e. nuclear weapons). Given the unique character belonging to LAWS, regulating them requires an overhaul of the current international decision-making process we have in place by bringing to the fore nations from all across the economic spectrum in order for them to have a voice in drafting legislation, regardless of the level of new technology production in each country.Moreover,to further stress the ineffectiveness of arms control treaties, it has been argued that pre-emptive bans in the form of treaties are unlikely to maintain the pace of technological advancements which, in the long run, could even prove counterproductive to the fight against LAWS.

Having established that the (legal) pen is not always mightier than the sword, it’s time to considerthe possibility of soft law regulation through preventive arms control.This strategy encompasses two main action points. Firstly, a prospective scientific analysis of the properties LAWS areembedded with is mandatory in order to gain more intel on propagation, speed, effect and survivability. Secondly, a prospective operational analysis using simulation software andtargeting the probable scope and usageof LAWS with an emphasis on abnormal employment and collateral effects is of equal importance in the proper applicationof a preventive arms control blueprint.

Likewise, it could prove instructive to add a reliable and transparent verification stage of LAWS in the mix. It should contain a high degree of intrusiveness by allowing access to LAWS at anytime and in all countries connected in any fashion with any of these machineries. Nevertheless, does this need for a very intrusive verification process reconcile with military’s stance on secrecy? It might not. The fear of accidentally revealing plans, motivations, technical properties and potential mechanical weaknesses which could be leveraged in enemy attacksmight block inspectors in their verification quest.To counteract this, confidence-building measures should go alongside verification.Lastly, in order to ensure that standardised guidelines have not been disregarded, the observance of existing international law norms should also be part and parcel of the preventive arms control package.

Undoubtedly, we know that politics always precedes weapons, regardless of how advanced they are. Also, nobody wants to see slaughterbots running amok unabatedly. Consequently, the tenor of my argument has attempted to address LAWS by opening the scope of investigation on practical arms control policies and procedurescatered for new technologies. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Accordingly, preventive arms control strategiescan prove to be the elixirs the world has been searching for to the insecurities engendered by the destructiveness of LAWS. They themselves could represent that panacea that the UN has been attempting to find in their quest to ban killer robots which could also be incorporated in the negotiations with the Russian Federation in order to reach a mutually-beneficial agreement.

Part of this essay has been submitted for the Munich Security Conference 2018. 

Alina Toporas is a recent Master of Science graduate in Global Crime, Justice and Security at the University of Edinburgh Law School. She has previously worked for the European Commission Representation in Scotland, the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA), the Romanian Embassy in Croatia and Hagar International (the Vietnamese branch). She is currently serving as a Communications Assistant of the British Embassy in Romania. Her research interests are mainly targeted at the EU-UK cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) post-Brexit. Alina is also the author of various pieces on transnational crimes (namely, human trafficking and illicit trade) with a geographical focus on South-East Asia.

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New Report: Export controls, human security and cyber-surveillance technology

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A new report released today from SIPRI, ‘Export controls, human security and cyber-surveillance technology: Examining the proposed changes to the EU Dual-use Regulation’.

The report seeks to inform discussions about the European Commission’s proposed ‘recast’ of the European Union Dual-use Regulation—the main regulatory instrument for EU member states’ controls on the trade in dual-use items.  The proposal, which is currently being examined by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union, is part of a review of the Regulation which was launched in 2011.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Commission’s proposal is a series of amendments to the Regulation that would give human rights, international humanitarian law (IHL) and terrorism a more central role in member states’ dual-use export controls and create an expanded set of controls on exports of so-called cyber-surveillance technology. Many of these aspects of the proposal have been broadly welcomed by the European Parliament and NGOs, which have been pushing for tighter EU controls on the trade in cyber-surveillance technology since 2011. However, other stakeholders—particularly the sections of EU industry affected by dual-export controls—have warned of the potential for confusion and unintended side-effects to be generated by the language used.

In order to provide context for these debates, the report outlines the existing relationship between human rights, international humanitarian law (IHL), terrorism and dual-use export controls and details the origins of the discussion about applying export controls to cyber-surveillance technology and describes the measures that have been adopted to date within the Wassenaar Arrangement and the EU. The report then analyses those aspects of the Commission’s proposal which are focused on human rights, IHL, terrorism and cyber-surveillance technology while also detailing the responses and alternative formulations put forward by key stakeholders. The report ends by presenting some conclusions and recommendations, focused particularly on the issues that should be addressed as the review process continues during 2018.

You can read the report here

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Nuclear Deterrence Equation in South Asia: Chess vs. Chess

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The supreme art of war is to subdue enemy without fighting: Sun Tzu

Deterrence equilibrium in South Asia serves as an assurance for peace and stability in the region. The strategic significance of nuclear weapon in the South Asian security equation is undeniable because these weapons reduce the chances of war and conflict between the belligerent states.  In South Asian security paradigm nuclear deterrence is viewed as more stable than conventional deterrence.Such as since the introduction of nuclear weapons, Pakistan has effectively deterred India’s aggression on various occasions. Therefore nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan plays a vital role to maintain strategic stability in South Asia.

Since the inception of the nuclear age, the credible deterrence posture is defined as one which can enable a state to survive a preemptive first strike by its opponent but still retain sufficient nuclear weapons and delivery systems to deliver a second strike that can cause unacceptable level of damage tothe opponent.

Consequently, deterrence is a dynamic concept based on multiple inter-linked features including nuclear technology, doctrinal postures and international nuclear regimes. Change in the nuclear postures, sophisticated missile capabilities, shift in state’s nuclear policy, shifting security environment and access to nuclear related material, technology and infrastructure are the key features that can affect the deterrence posture and nature.

Apparently, nuclear doctrines of South Asian nuclear states are based on minimum credible deterrence. But Since 2003, statements by India’s nuclear strategists and officials have indicated that India is shifting its nuclear doctrine of ‘No First Use’ to ‘First-Use’. For instance, India’s former National Security Advisor, ShivshankarMenonarticulated in his book that ‘India might find it useful to strike first against an adversary poised to launch or that declared it would use its weapons’, this statement was a clear reference to Pakistan. However, India’s vague nuclear strategy and hints of doctrinal shiftare neither new nor surprising for Pakistan. For India’s nuclear history is full with such contradictory statement but such contradictory assertions are posing serious challenge to nuclear deterrence.

In contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is Indian centric and aim’s to deter India’s aggression.Therefore in response to India’s shifting nuclear strategy and growing capabilities, Pakistan’s NCA has endorsed a“Full Spectrum Deterrence”. What is meant by full-spectrum? Lt. Gen Khalid Kidwai pointed out that Full Spectrum Deterrence policy guides the development of nuclear capability, which brings every Indian target into Pakistan’s striking range. Consequently, Pakistan is developing a “full spectrum of nuclear weapons in all three categories — strategic, operational and tactical, with full range coverage of the large Indian land mass and its outlying territories” including Nicobar and Andaman Islands. For developments of the command by India at these Islands will severely undermine the deterrence and regional strategic stability.

After the introduction of “India’s Cold Start Doctrine” and in response to growing conventional forces asymmetry, Pakistan has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons. Though, India tries to formulate alternative strategies around nuclear deterrence to achieve its regional and global strategic ambitions. However, Pakistan has countered the Indian technological and missile developments with calculated responses to uphold deterrence and strategic stability in the region. Such as, successful test of Multiple Independent Re-entry Targetable Vehicle (MIRV), Ababeel is a reliable measure against Indian Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system.Additionally, India’s testing of Agni IV and Agni V in year 2017 hasdemonstratedthat the development of low yieldNasar is a stabilizing addition to the prevailing deterrence equation.

Howeverin shifting regional security environment, arms race, vertical proliferation, war mongering mindset of political elites and absence of arms control regime is viewed as unavoidable challenge to deterrence equilibrium at tactical level as well as strategic level. India’s growing conventional and military capabilities, shifting nuclear strategy and aggressive policies have potential to disturb regional peace and stability but India is not willing to pay any heed to emerging challenges to deterrence. Therefore, Pakistan has adequately prepared itself to address the challenges of Indian aggression by maintaining credible nuclear deterrence and conventional defence.  Pakistan’s counter measures such as development of Nasr and Ababeel has thwarted India’s Cold Start Doctrine and Ballistic Missile Defence System because facing the instability and aggression is not an option.

To conclude, it is imperative for Pakistan to modernize its nuclear weapon to deter India from taking any offense against Pakistan. Accordingly, any compromise on its nuclear weapon advancement and modernization can be dangerous for regional stability and its own national security.

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How the Internet made nuclear war thinkable (again)

Rafal Rohozinski

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Nuclear weapons formed the basis of strategic stability between the nuclear superpowers for the past seventy years. The threat of instantaneous and mutual annihilation helped concentrate minds, including the establishment of clear and unambiguous “rules of the game” among the nuclear superpowers. States continued to compete, but competition was never allowed to compromise overall strategic stability.

Nuclear deterrence was based on a simple calculus. Once launched, nuclear weapons were nearly impossible to stop and even limited use would result in civilization ending consequences. In former US President Reagan’s words, nuclear war was “unthinkable”. The knowledge that entire nations could be obliterated was a sufficient guarantor of strategic stability based on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The shared confidence in MAD that underpinned the nuclear regime started changing during the 1990s. New research and development into anti-ballistic missile systems improved raised concerns over the durability of nuclear deterrence. Specifically, the Russian government interpreted the placement of radars and ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe as an existential threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrence capability, and not a bulwark against supposed rogue states as alleged by the US and its allies.

Even so, MAD survived into the early twenty first century, keeping the nuclear threat on the back-burner. Cooperation between the major nuclear powers to disarm also reached an all-time high. Both the US and Russia focused on reducing their nuclear stockpiles with admirable results. Working with the United Nations, the focus was on the threat of loose nukes, rather than a confrontation between nuclear-armed foes. Tensions, which persisted, were treated by all sides as manageable and negotiable.

All of this changed with the Internet. The Internet shares a coincidental heritage with the nuclear age. Indeed, it was conceived as a decentralized and distributed communications network that could survive a nuclear war and preserve a command and control. In the post Cold War era, its principal significance is not so much military as the news backbone of the global digital economy. These two worlds  –  the nuclear and the digital –  are now converging. They are also giving rise new risks, three of which stand out.

The first risk relates to bringing nuclear command-and-control systems into the digital age. The existing nuclear weapons infrastructure is for the most part analog and predates the Internet era. As Russian and US nuclear command and control systems are modernized over the next few years their dependence on digital technologies will increase. Modernization necessarily increases complexity – and complexity creates new possibilities for error.

The planet came perilously close to a nuclear exchange on several occasions over the past half century. A nuclear calamity was only averted by the courageous actions of men such as Lt Col. Stanislav Petrov, who in September 1983 deliberately ignored sensor data that falsely reported the Soviet Union under a massive nuclear attack from America. With nuclear command and control systems increasingly dependent on artificial intelligence, there are less opportunities for human intervention.

There are also the risks of hacking and digital manipulation. The Stuxnet case is a reminder that this possibility is more science than fiction. The implanting of malware designed to destroy Iran’s capacity to separate uranium demonstrated emphatically the utility and feasibility of strategic cyber attacks. Interventions designed to disrupt and destroy the command and control systems of nuclear weapons are the Internet equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. They dangerously entangle cyber warfare and nuclear stability. There are just 9 nuclear armed states, but over 140 countries are actively developing cyber warfare capabilities.

The second risk is that the world´s dependence on cyber actually increases the deterrence value of acquiring even a few nuclear weapons. Due to their blast, radioactive and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects, nuclear weaponry is especially effective against states that are hyper-connected and reliant on digital technologies. They can disable and destroy electrical grids, data farms and computer and communication systems – wreaking havoc on everything from financial systems to water and food supplies.

A new suite of hydrogen bombs are being developed with the EMP impacts in mind. The weapons tested by North Korea are reportedly based on Russian design and intended to have an enhanced electromagnetic effects, a fact publicized by North Korea´s leadership. New research from Accenture strategy and Oxford Economics suggests that roughly 25% of all global GDP will be tied to the digital economy by 2020. The detonation of just one EMP in the upper atmosphere above North America or Western Europe could cripple their digital infrastructures for years. Even outgunned, North Korea is potentially holding world´s digital economy hostage.

The third risk is perhaps most unsettling risk is that nuclear first strikes are becoming thinkable as a viable option to stop the use of similar weapons by states like North Korea. Recall that nuclear deployment systems are based on electronics. These electronic systems may be resistant to offensive cyber attacks. It is not inconceivable that in a moment of crisis, EMP-enhanced nuclear weapons could be deployed to prevent a rogue nuclear state from launching its ballistic missiles. Such an action may even appear rational, or the lesser of two evils.

All of the risks outlined above are still hypothetical. But as the digital and nuclear worlds become increasingly entangled, reality is catching-up. The strategy of deterrence is being redefined and the implications are deeply worrying. The launch of cyber-attacks and precision nuclear strikes using EMP against the weapons systems of adversaries no longer seems as far-fetched as it once was. With nuclear war becoming thinkable again, we are clearly entering uncharted waters.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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