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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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China’s Defense Policy: Questions and answers

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The Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has published a paper titled the White Paper “National Defense in  New Era”. The document is designed to become a response of the Chinese leadership to other countries’ fears over the growing military power of the PRC. The paper outlines the main points of China’s national defense agenda. They envisage the containment of any external aggression, the safety of the population, social stability, protection of the territorial integrity and the marine and space interests of the PRC. 

The White Paper for the first time outlines the priorities of the Chinese army in the new era on the basis of the “four strategic pillars”. According to the paper, the Chinese army, acting in accordance with the strategic requirements of national security and development, carries out the assignments set by the Party and the people and provides strategic support for strengthening party leadership and the socialist system and  for protecting the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the country. In addition, the army guarantees strategic support to protect the interests of China abroad and contributes to peace and development on the planet.

This document details defense expenditures and their structure. Over the past decades, the PRC has significantly reduced its military spending in proportion to national GDP and the state budget, but has increased its absolute value. In 1979, the country’s defense expenditures accounted for 5.43% of the GDP, while in 2017 – 1.26%. At present, China is the world’s sixth in the ratio of military budget to GDP (after the United States, Russia, India, Britain and France), while it holds  second place in the absolute volume of military expenses.

What triggered most interest is the statement under which the Chinese leadership vows to never be the first to use nuclear weapons whatever the circumstances. Beijing, the document says, has no intentions to participate in the nuclear arms race and will maintain and strengthen its nuclear potential only for ensuring national security. “China calls for a complete ban and destruction of nuclear weapons, is not going to compete with any country in an arms race, and will maintain its nuclear potential at a level appropriate to meet the needs of national security,” – the White Paper says.

This provision has caused the greatest number of questions: for one, why, in this case, China refuses to join the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? What is often mentioned in this regard is that the US President has announced his intention to conclude a large-scale nuclear agreement with Russia and China on arms control. Perhaps, this is possible in the future.

But the important thing is that national defense policy and operational issues of arms control go separate. We remember Barack Obama’s speech on nuclear-free world, which he delivered in Prague in 2010 and for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. But this did not mean and does not mean that the United States is ready to immediately dump nuclear weapons.

Incidentally, in the 2011 White Paper on Defense Issues, China (the only of the globally recognized nuclear powers) was the first to declare non-use of nuclear weapons. As for Beijing’s participation in disarmament negotiations, it is determined by the balance of strategic deterrence forces worldwide.

That is why, after D. Trump’s statement about the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, China, whose nuclear potential is considerably smaller than that of the US, refused to join the treaty until the two countries’ potentials became, if not equal, then at least comparable. Meanwhile, Beijing will welcome participation in the negotiations of other members of the Nuclear Five – Britain and France, as well as unofficial nuclear powers, such as India and Pakistan.

In addition, it is important to separate such issues as reduction of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, which comprise ballistic missiles, including medium and short- range. The latter, according to the Chinese doctrine, are classified as strategic weapons.

In general, the White Paper gives you a feeling that China will be ready to join the process of control of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery when the time is right and the relevant conditions are in place. This, in Beijing’s opinion, meets the interests of national security. And the time to do so may well come in the foreseeable future. 

From our partner International Affairs

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NATO’s “space strategy”: What is it all about?

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In a Twitter post released in June 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the North Atlantic Alliance planned to develop its own “space strategy.” According to Deutsche Welle, NATO experts are certain that future military conflicts will inevitably affect near-Earth space, “for example, through an attack on satellites of strategic importance or through the use of a weapon in space.”

NATO explains the need to “declare space a separate territory for military operations” by the emergence of new threats posed by technological progress. The argumentation is of a standard military-bureaucratic nature: as new technologies keep coming along, “exploring” their potential military application becomes imperative. Moreover, NATO’s core members – the United States, France and Britain – clearly go beyond purely theoretical “research” in the field of weaponization of outer space. In December 2019, President Donald Trump issued an order to create the US Space Command with an eye to turning space into a domain of warfare.

Judging by the information available in open sources, it could be safe to assume that in its space warfare plans, the North Atlantic Alliance could move along a path similar to its policy in the field of cyberspace operations. Indeed, in 2016, NATO outlined a common view whereby a cyberattack can, under certain circumstances, be considered a reason for implementing Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, thus activating the principle of collective defense, which is at the very heart of NATO’s founding treaty. Computer networks, infrastructure and software were designated as a separate area for developing the tactics and strategy of combat operations on land, on high seas and in the air. A unified coordination center for cyber operations was set up in Mons, Belgium, in October 2018.

However, NATO has not yet been able to agree a cyber security doctrine that would suit all of its members. According to The Economist, plans are apace to do this within the next “year or two.” So far, there has been no mention of any joint offensive operations in cyberspace, which are within the exclusive competence of the NATO member states. The Allied Command Transformation, responsible for the development of promising concepts of warfare, will work out a doctrine of cyber operations already within the next few years, although this work has just begun. NATO is thus moving on to the next task even before it has solved any one from the list of “new challenges.” According to German media reports, once the planned “space strategy” has been duly implemented, NATO will move on to the allocation of “additional resources,” and view “possible space attacks” as “attacks on the ground, in the air, at sea and in cyberspace.”

Here NATO may hit several serious snags, the first being President Trump’s open distrust of the alliance. Trump has on several occasions expressed his doubts about NATO’s value for the United States. During his election campaign he described NATO as “obsolete,” and already in office he has repeatedly put in question his commitment to the organization’s fundamental collective defense principle. Reports about Trump’s desire to pull the United States out of the North Atlantic Alliance started leaking into the media from the very start of his presidency. He openly hinted about his readiness to dramatically downsize US military support for Europe, and even warned that Washington could go it alone” if its European allies failed to “cooperate.” In April, Washington did not invite the heads of government of NATO member states to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Alliance in what many Western media outlets described as a sign of the diminished status of NATO.

The past experience of overcoming a similar period of “cooling” in Washington’s relations with Europe under President George W. Bush, is prodding the leaders of some European NATO member states to fall into Washington’s line. In the field of defense, one of the Trump Administration’s priorities was to undermine strategic stability, including by reviving the concept of achieving “decisive superiority” in the militarization of space. Unhappy about the European NATO members’ “inadequate” defense spending, President Trump demanded and obtained in 2014 their promise to increase their defense outlays to 2 percent of GDP.

However, only a handful of them have managed to meet this target to date.

Meanwhile, more and more European experts now fear that Washington’s desire to decrease its commitment to the existing system of Western alliances could stay on even after Donald Trump has left the White House.  Moreover, the political and diplomatic steps taken by the Trump Administration indicate a desire to use NATO to advance US, rather than Western-shared geopolitical interests in Europe. Many Europeans also suspect that Trump’s verbal attacks are meant to disguise Washington’s true desire to undermine EU unity and geopolitical prospects. As if to justify these suspicions, Washington started openly calling the EU a “weak” and “incapable” union and pitching the idea of a US-adjusted North Atlantic Alliance to replace the new “unifier of Europe.” During the 2018 NATO summit, these disagreements boiled over to an extent that in the fall of that same year the French and German leaders called for creating an independent European army.

The Europeans’ intention to expand NATO’s “zone of responsibility” to space might look like an attempt to meet Washington’s demands, though in its own way – to increase spending under the 2% NATO quota not by buying more US-made arms, but by expanding national and continent-wide space programs. After all, many space R&D and technologies have a “dual” potential and can be used for military and civilian purposes alike.

Technology-wise, NATO’s space plans face another hurdle, since when it comes to “military” space, the United States is way ahead of all of its allies combined. The US military space budget for this year exceeds $12 billion, with $14 billion requested by the Pentagon for 2020.  By contrast, the similar budget of France, which is second among NATO countries in terms of “military” space spending, is a mere 3.6 billion euros for the next five years. By the end of Trump’s first year in office, Washington’s missile defense policy was “radically revised” with significant spikes in related spending added to the country’s defense appropriations list. The US Space Command is in the process of being set up.

On January 17, the United States released the National Missile Defense Review, which prioritizes, among other things, the deployment in the near-Earth orbit of combat lasers capable of shooting down ICBMs. It outlines an essentially global task of covering the entire territories of the United States and its allies that comes in place of the previous goal of ensuring protection against a “limited ballistic missile strike.”

The Pentagon is mulling a constellation of small and cheap satellites placed in a low-Earth orbit to track ICBMs at every stage of their flight, as well as “non-kinetic means of influencing space vehicles,” speeding up the development and launchings of dual-purpose satellites, and influencing foreign spacecraft under the pretext of dealing with space junk. According to Western and Russian experts, the United States plans to study the possibility of placing in orbit missile or laser interceptors, along with “cluster groups” and anti-missile weapons.

For comparison, France, which is NATO’s second biggest space power, doesn’t come even close to this. In order to finally keep up with America, Paris recently unveiled a “Space Defense Strategy” with an eye to developing new orbital weapons, creating a “single command” and establishing the armed forces’ “direct control over military satellites.” When unveiling the Strategy in July, President Emmanuel Macron said: “We will better protect our satellites, including in an active way”. Still, the French military’s growing interest in space “exploration” does not necessarily mean that it is ready to follow in America’s wake. A well-known pragmatist, President Macron has recently been emphasizing the objective need for Europe to offset US influence. In June, Macron spoke in favor of mending fences with Russia.

“Europe, that I believe in… must build new rules of trust and security with Russia, and should not only agree with NATO. It needs to build only between Europe and Russia,” Macron stressed.

Finally, NATO has once again been pointing to Moscow’s alleged “aggressiveness” to justify its military preparations of the past few years.  However, it is Russia – one of the world’s leading space powers that has consistently been opposing attempts to militarize outer space. Russia and China have spent many years promoting a draft treaty that would ban the deployment of weapons in space, and the use of force or the threat of force against space objects. The Russian-Chinese initiative is based on a political commitment not to be the first to place weapons in outer space. As for the United States, it is the main opponent of any international legal initiatives aimed at preventing an arms race in space. On April 1, 2019, it became known that Washington had blocked the final report by a team of UN experts on measures to prevent the deployment of weapons in outer space. Most recently, during a July 26 meeting of the BRICS Foreign Ministers Council, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, once again warned Washington not to bring “weapons into outer space, which would lead to a new qualitative turn in the global arms race” .

With the demise of the Cold War, NATO lost the two key elements that had justified its existence, namely “the enemy” and “the mission.” During the past thirty years, however, the North Atlantic Alliance has been desperately searching for those past priorities for which its members would have to keep sacrificing a considerable portion of their own interests. Will the new “space” plans be able to keep the alliance alive, or will they become a new confirmation of NATO’s chronic problem – the inability to identify the right challenges, priorities and tasks of this day and age?

 From our partner International Affairs

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Revisiting U.S.- China Strategic Competition: Insights from 2018 NPR

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Following the end of the Cold War, the global security situation has drastically become more complex and demanding to levels of almost unprecedented nature. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) 2018 indicates that since 1991, US has been undergoing significant reductions in its nuclear arsenal. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) has been put forward as an example, which set an upper limit of 6,000 nuclear warheads whereas shorter-range of nuclear weapons were almost eliminated during this time period. Furthermore, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) and the 2010 New START Treaty, lowered the strategic force levels to 1,550 warheads, reducing US nuclear stockpiles to more than 85 percent from its Cold War high. National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017, another state document setting the vision of President Donald J. Trump, indicates conditions thought as ideal for the “unprecedented aspirations” of the Obama administration for a “nuclear zero” were seen as indications of “American weakness and decline”. International events in the form of alleged Russian resurgence in Ukraine and the Middle East, along with increasing Chinese boldness in the Asia-Pacific are stated to be evidence of a multi-polar world order where US is required to safeguard its interests. The return to the great power competition has brought China to modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces stresses the 2018 NPR. It is pursuing entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives while also modernizing its conventional military that is allegedly challenging the traditional US military superiority in the Western Pacific. Elsewhere, the strategic picture brings similar concerns, NPR mentions North Korea’s nuclear provocations that are considered a threat to regional and global peace.

China carried out a relatively slow build-up of its nuclear weapons stockpile and delivery systems once it finished developing thermonuclear weapons, ICBM, and SLBM capabilities. Open-source estimates put China’s total stockpile at 150-160 weapons in 1984 but did not indicate how many weapons were actually deployed. A US National Security Council study put China’s nuclear-armed missile stockpile at 60-70 weapons in 1993, but this estimate included all missiles and not ICBMs. The head of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) put China’s total stockpile at the “range of several hundred weapons” in 2012, and the Federation of American Scientists indicated that the nominal total was 240.The Department of Defense document China Military Power credited China with 50-75 ICBMs and SLBMs in 2013, and approximately 1,100 shorter-range missiles, but did not estimate China’s nuclear stockpile.

Some open-source estimates rose to 250 weapons by 2015, and 260 weapons by 2017.Reports that China has obtained significant amounts of US nuclear weapons design data are at least considered moderately credible in the US intelligence community where as elsewhere it amounts to disinformation campaign on the part of the Cold War victor to reassert its dominance.

Finally, in order to conclude it must be added that US and China need to deal with the fact that they have never been part of any significant arms control agreement such as START or even Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).From a Chinese perspective, the pre-requisites requires a creation of larger and less vulnerable nuclear forces. The strategic thought emerging in China concludes that nuclear modernization, for China is not only a vital strategic interest but it is an existential necessity in a transitioning international power structure. Even in a far more cordial environment where arms control dominates the agenda, each power would still be ensuring that advances in technology does not give the others a critical advantage, such as first strike orcounter-force advantage. The latter environment clearly no longer exists, it would take lots of efforts on their part to rebuilt global stability and security that at present is dominated by more contemporary issues in the cyber and outer-space.

Considering that the Chinese political system that is concealed by notions of secrecy, it remains a challenge to predict how China will compete in nuclear delivery systems, their numbers and performance with those of the other leading powers such as US and Russia. According to the intellectual estimates by the pundits, the literature provides that China may or may not be seeking closer to parity with the US and Russia in strategic delivery systems and warheads. However, a more holistic approach for this purpose would be to judge the Chinese intentions from a cost-benefit approach of its past and current national objectives rather than judging the same from American and Russian numbers on size, war fighting capabilities and levels of nuclear deterrence. The fact is that modernizing and expanding nuclear forces does not signifies matching the nuclear forces of the other “nuclear powers”. Furthermore, comparisons of nuclear forces and their capability to deter is not primarily a numbers game whereby, a side having the most in number and quality would remain supreme. Such comparison must be based on the utility to nuclear weapons in dominating a crisis and in war fighting from the tactical to the strategic level. In reality, it is also probably that the side that successfully deters with the least expensive nuclear forces would “win”. Regardless of China’s declared nuclear posture and strategy, the modernization in the next couple of decades are likely to change the “every aspect of its war planning and reaction to a crisis” that involve the potential use of nuclear weapons.

The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) recognizes the interaction between changes in number and capability of US and Chinese nuclear forces. It shows that the US recognizes that future nuclear planning and arms control efforts must recognize China’s emergence as a third major nuclear power, and that the past focus on US and Russian Strategic nuclear forces and arms control, must change. The NPR also makes it clear that there already is a major arms race in nuclear capability, and may well pave way for a new major arms race in numbers.

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