On September 6–7, 2018 the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) held a joint conference in Beijing on the impact of AI technologies and autonomous systems on nuclear safety and strategic stability. This is the second event held as part of the two-year SIPRI research project, which is aimed at studying the impact of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence technologies on international relations. The report on the first conference is available on the RIAC website.
The New Race is Inevitable
The Beijing conference focused on security issues in East Asia. The event brought together experts from Russia, China, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, India and Pakistan, who described their countries’ stances on the use of new technologies in issues related to strategic stability.
An interesting feature of the event was the consensus among the participants that nuclear powers would soon use new technologies (primarily machine learning) to modernize their strategic weapons. Using weak artificial intelligence for early missile warning systems and assessing the probability of a missile launch could give the military command of a nuclear power extra time to decide on a retaliatory strike and its scale. New technologies could also increase the precision of nuclear weapons and the effectiveness of missile defence, improve the security of nuclear facilities, and provide better intelligence information.
At the same time, faster decision-making for one party will inevitably prompt its potential adversaries to search for options for faster nuclear weapons delivery systems. Such an “acceleration race” between nuclear powers potentially poses a significant threat to global stability, since such a race would leave progressively less time to assess whether the threat of an attack is real and whether retaliation is expedient. Ultimately, it is possible that countries will be forced to automate decisions concerning a retaliatory strike, which can have unpredictable consequences. At the same time, weaker nuclear powers will feel vulnerable and could soon yield to the temptation to introduce an automatic retaliatory nuclear strike system (similar to the Soviet Dead Hand (Perimeter) system and the U.S. “Operation Looking Glass”).
The participants in the discussion noted that even machine learning professionals do not always fully understand the way it works. Even though AI technologies are developing rapidly, the “black box” problem, that is, the situation when decision-making algorithms remain hidden from developers, is still relevant. Thus, before entrusting decisions on deploying lethal weapons to artificial intelligence, we need to make AI itself far more transparent. However, a contradiction inevitably arises from the need to combine the comprehensibility of machine learning mechanisms with protecting them from the enemy, since data used by neural networks can be “poisoned” by deliberate manipulation. It is also important to note that, due to the specifics of their work, the military has a much smaller volume of data for machine learning than civil companies working on AI.
The conference attendees also discussed North Korea’s work on artificial intelligence. The participants noted that, despite significant efforts that Pyongyang had channelled into AI, North Korean machine learning projects are still in their infancy and will hardly pose a threat in the foreseeable future.
Autonomous, Lethal, Yours
The conference focused in particular on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), since they are already actively used by individual countries, primarily by the United States and China. Most conference participants agreed that incidents with the autonomous systems could provoke conflicts between great powers in East Asia. Possible scenarios could include collisions of unmanned vehicles, the loss of control over them, and even theft of an enemy drone.
Such incidents are most likely in the South China Sea, where there are a number of disputed territories to which Beijing lays claim, such as the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. The United States, in turn, has allied obligations with the Philippines, where it has five military bases. The United States has traditionally maintained a large-scale presence in the region.
Drone-related incidents in the South China Sea are not purely theoretical, as there are recent precedents. In particular, in December 2016, China seized a U.S. Navy underwater drone that was collecting research data in neutral waters near the Philippines. Beijing returned the drone to Washington, but accused the United States of threatening China’s sovereignty. Commenting on the incident, experts noted that China had probably examined the drone thoroughly before returning it.
Other areas fraught with potential collisions of autonomous vehicles are the Taiwan Strait, the waters around the South Kuril Islands, the Senkaku Islands (Beijing and Taipei dispute Tokyo’s sovereignty) and the Liancourt Rocks (controlled by South Korea and disputed by Japan).
In the near future, drone incidents may become more frequent both in East Asia and elsewhere, since border control is one of the most promising areas for the use of unmanned vehicles (both airborne and underwater). In particular, autonomous patrolling of land borders is actively being developed by the European Union.
Even drones that are not armed with lethal weapons can cause a conflict if control over them is lost and they inadvertently cross the border into another state. They could also collide with the autonomous vehicles of another state. Additionally, it is not entirely known how drones operating under different systems will interact when approaching each other.
The fact that autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence still belong in the “grey area” of the international law further complicates the situation. A group of UN government experts recently put forward recommendations on resolving this problem at the Inhumane Weapons Convention. On August 31, 2018, the group published a report on the possible principles for regulating autonomous combat systems. In particular, experts propose making humans responsible for the actions of autonomous vehicle at all stages.
Foreign participants in the conference were also concerned by Russia’s unmanned nuclear submarine, the development of which was mentioned by Vladimir Putin in his Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018:
“As concerns Russia, we have developed unmanned submersible vehicles that can move at great depths (I would say extreme depths) intercontinentally, at a speed multiple times higher than the speed of submarines, cutting-edge torpedoes and all kinds of surface vessels, including some of the fastest. …
“Unmanned underwater vehicles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure.”
Later, in July 2018, the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation announced the start of tests on the Poseidon an unmanned underwater vehicle (also known as Status-6). The system is on the 2027 State Armament Programme, and the Russian Navy is expected to have received the weapons by then. According to the media, Poseidon will be able to carry a 2-megaton nuclear warhead.
Some conference participants believe that the use of drones with nuclear warheads could radically change the strategic balance of power and provoke a new arms race. Additionally, if an autonomous vehicle is launched by mistake, the marine environment makes it impossible to make contact with it to abort its deadly mission. However, this is not a new problem: for a long time, nuclear submarines were in the same situation: when underwater, they could not receive orders to abort a launch.
Recipes for Détente
At the conference, working groups also held discussions aimed at developing proposals on mitigating the risks and negative effects that new technologies have on strategic stability.
The participants’ proposals included the following steps:
- Using new technologies for the mutual monitoring of nuclear facilities.
- Bilateral and multilateral dialogue between nuclear powers on using AI in the military sector.
- Parties committing (for instance, in a declaration) to preserving human control of nuclear weapons.
- Countries exchanging information on national AI research.
- Continued discussion on the parameters of human control of autonomous systems (supporting the work of the specialized group of UN government experts).
- Developing a code of conduct for the contingency of a possible incident involving combat autonomous systems and unmanned vehicles.
- Establishing “hotlines” between countries regarding incidents with autonomous systems.
- Separating early warning systems from systems that make decisions on launching strikes.
- Developing safety requirements for autonomous systems, including options to abort missions.
- Stepping up AI technology exchanges. Greater openness of innovations.
It should be noted that real restrictions on the military use of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, including for the purpose of improving the effectiveness of strategic weapons, no longer appear to be a feasible scenario. Judging by the reports presented by the conference participants, the arms race in this area has already begun, and the temptation to gain an edge in new weapons is too great for the countries to take general humanitarian considerations into account in anything more than a declarative manner.
The current situation emphasizes the need for the rapid development of a legal framework for the use of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence. It is also highly desirable for the prohibition on the automated use of nuclear weapons to be set forth on an inter-country level, at least in the form of a declaration. Otherwise, minutes “gained” can turn out to be too costly for the whole of humanity.
First published in our partner RIAC
Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race
A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.
North Korea ramps up tensions
According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.
Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”
China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”
North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”
In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.
South Korea joins in on the missile testing
Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.
Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.
Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”
The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.
HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds
Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.
The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.
Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.
Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.
In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.
HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.
Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.
The bottom line
Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.
To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.
To include or not include? China-led SCO weighs Iranian membership
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may help Iran reduce its international isolation. At least, that’s what the Islamic Republic hopes when leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gather in Tajikistan next weekend.
Members are admitted to the eight-member China-led SCO that also groups Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, by unanimous consensus. Iran, unlike its rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has long had observer status with the SCO.
The Gulf states have so far kept their distance to the China-dominated regional alliance created to counter the ‘evils’ of ‘terrorism, separatism, and extremism” so as not to irritate their main security ally, the United States.
Acceptance of the Iranian application would constitute a diplomatic coup for Tehran and Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi. Mr. Raisi, a proponent of closer relations with China and Russia, is expected to make his first appearance on the international stage at the SCO summit in Dushanbe since having assumed office last month.
Iranian officials hope, perhaps over-optimistically, that SCO membership would help them counter the impact of harsh US sanctions. Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has advised the Raisi government to look East towards China, Russia and India asserting that they could “help our economy to make progress.”
Similarly, it is not clear that membership would substantially reduce Iran’s international isolation or significantly improve its existing relations with other SCO members. What membership would do is effectively give Iran a veto should Saudi Arabia and the UAE choose to seek more formal relations with the SCO in response to a reduced US commitment to their security. The SCO is expected to grant Saudi Arabia and Egypt the status of dialogue partner at its Dushanbe summit.
Gulf confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor has been rattled by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan as well as the recent removal of the most advanced US missile defence weapon, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia as Yemeni Houthi rebels were successfully hitting targets in the kingdom.
China and Russia have in the past been reluctant to entertain full Iranian membership because they did not want to upset their delicately balanced relations with both Iran and its detractors. Policymakers, in the wake of Afghanistan, may figure that the two-year application process will give them time to prevent upsetting the apple cart.
To be sure, Tajikistan, in anticipation of a Taliban victory, first publicly promoted Iranian SCO membership in late May.
Zohidi Nizomiddin, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Iran, told a news conference in Tehran “that Iran to become a major member is among plans of the Shanghai Organization and if other countries are ready to accept Iran, Tajikistan will also be ready.” Tajikistan opposed Iranian membership in the past, accusing Iran of supporting Islamist rebels in the country.
Mr. Nizomiddin’s comments have since been supported by reports in Russian media. “There is a general disposition for this, there is no doubt about it,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, Russia’s ambassador at large for SCO affairs.
Russian analyst Adlan Margoev noted that “the SCO is a platform for discussing regional problems. Iran is also a state in the region, for which it is important to discuss these problems and seek solutions together.”
The Tajik and Russian backing of Iranian membership raises tantalizing questions about potential differences within the SCO towards dealing with the Taliban. Iran and Tajikistan, in contrast to Russia and China that have praised the Taliban’s conduct since the fall of Kabul, have adopted a harder, more critical attitude.
Nonetheless, Russia has in recent weeks held joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Tajik-Afghan border. Russia further promised to bolster Tajikistan by supplying weapons and providing training.
Tajikistan is believed to support Tajik rebels in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan that last week lost a potentially initial first round of fighting against the Taliban. It remains unclear whether the rebels will be able to regroup. Tajiks account for approximately one-quarter of the Afghan population. As the
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently awarded posthumously Tajikistan’s third-highest award to two ethnic Afghan Tajiks, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary father of current Tajik rebel leader Ahmad Massoud, and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, for their contribution to ending a devastating civil war in the 1990s in the Central Asian country.
Tajikistan and Iran agreed in April to create a joint military defence committee that would enhance security cooperation and counter-terrorism collaboration.
Iran recently changed its tone regarding Afghanistan after the Taliban failed to include a Hazara Shiite in their newly appointed caretaker government. Hazaras, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population, have reason to fear Taliban repression despite the group’s protection last month of Shiite celebrations of Ashura, the commemoration of the Prophet Moses’ parting of the sea.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took the Taliban to task for “ignoring the need for inclusive government, foreign intervention and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the demands of ethnic groups and social groups that are the main concerns of the friends of the Afghan people.” Mr. Shamkhani was referring to alleged Pakistani support for the Taliban in the battle for Panjshir.
Supporters of Iranian membership may figure that affairs in Afghanistan will have been sorted out by the time the application procedure has run its course with Afghanistan well on its way towards reconstruction. That may prove to be correct. By the same token, however, so could the opposite with an Afghanistan that is wracked by internal conflict and incapable of controlling militants operating from its soil.
The SCO may in either case want Iran to be in its tent to ensure that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, as well as regional powers Russia and India, are seated at one table. Mr Margoev, the analyst, argued that “just like other countries in the region – (we should) sit at the same table with Iran and not call it a guest from outside.”
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