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Autonomous Weapon Systems: Understanding and Operationalizing Human control

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Much has been already written on the autonomous weapon systems (AWS), and repeating the same conceptual description would be unnecessary. Here, we shall briefly discuss the difficulties in objectifying AWS[1]and understand the current developments on the concept of Human control on AWS. The essay shall analyze Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and International Committee on Red Cross (ICRC) combined report (Boulanin, Neil, Netta, & Peldan, 2020) released in June 2020, and Ajay Lele’s article titled ‘Autonomous Weapon systems. To have a construct for the discussion ahead, let’s define what exactly the AWS in this article is.AWS is understood as the military-grade machine that can make their own decisions without human intervention(Lele, 2019). If that is broadly the understanding of AWS, defining Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) turns out to have similar problems as in defining Terrorist. It is because of the subjectivity involved in the term ‘Lethal.’ For example, cyber warfare can be equally or more lethal than an airstrike. Are cyber-attacks assisted by Artificial Intelligence (AI) considered as LAWS? No consensus arrived for the latter.

If that is the dichotomy involved with the objectification of definition, the term ‘autonomy’ of the machine system itself is contextual. This makes it difficult to arrive at a universal legal consensus. During the World Wars, remote-controlled tanks, guided missiles were considered as autonomous as they could make decisions regarding their physical movements without soldiers manning them directly. take another example – It is impossible for a pilot while flying at the speed of Mach, to observe the targets with a naked eye. Decisions must be made within a fraction of second, to which the human body is not made of. There, the decision is made by computers along with high precision cameras. Isn’t that autonomous when the vision is considered? Consider US Tomahawk missiles. A sub-sonic cruise missile capable of maneuvering its way towards the target without constant human supervision. Even this is autonomous!

But the concern involving the development and deployment was not like that of today’s AI-based AWS. No matter how advanced the autonomy was, the decision making power, control regarding the actions on the filed was the pure prerogative of humans. The introduction of AI changes that. We have arrived at a junction in history where no human can comprehend the societal structure(Winner, 1978, p. 290). Even within the military, the complex inter-dependence of technology and humans have gone to an un-comprehensible level. AI involved weapon systems have aggregated the ‘black-box’ concern, pushing all the states to re-visit the humanitarian, ethical standards of the AWS.

As of current AWS deployment, airborne autonomous systems are saddle at Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAE), land-based robots at the preliminary stage (US SWORDS TALON), and Sea-based are missile systems assisted with auto-detection systems. However, the threat of machines taking the cognitive decisions without any human input is possible only with Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Artificial Super intelligence (ASI)[2]. The ASI is not yet invented and scientists are not sure if it is possible but it is strongly opined by some that it is not impossible and likely to be realized by the 1st third of the next century (Bostrom, 1998). Such super intelligence would be considered to have the capacity to become an uncontrolled offensive system but largely the current developments fall under controlled – defensive systems (Lele, 2019).

On these AWS, the 8 years long persisting concern of expert groups on emerging technologies figures two main aspects – human control, and accountability of AWS. The 2019 report of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) has drawn four principles on which further AWS policy research would be undertaken. They cover the aspects of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Human control and accountability, the applicability of international law on the usage of AWS, and the accountability of development, deployment and usage must adhere to Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and necessary international laws.

AWS -Ethics and Human Control

The aspect of human control of AWS is the major ongoing debate in international fora. Previously, it never happened that a military operation is completely carried autonomously by munitions and thus, no laws are governing such aspects. These ex-ante debates on the probable loss of human control are anchored to the machine’s uncertain capabilities on predictability, ability to analyze the environment, and differentiating civilians and combatants. While humanitarian law is unquestionable agreed on while deploying the AWS, the ethical standards to be made are much more complex because of their subjectivity. The ethics of a soldier is different from the ethics of civilian. The debates of ethical standards on AWS are of two types, Result driven (consequential approach), action-driven (Deontological approach).  The latter depends on the moral judgments of the user. It considers the rights of both combatants and civilians alike while engaging in conflict. The former includes the probable consequences of the military operation. The international norms would take both the approaches into considerations in arriving at the final draft as the research is ex- ante.

For a proper subjective understanding, brood over the question – ‘Save her fellow soldier or save civilian? Which is ethical?’

To have ethics-based human control over the AWS, there are three ways – strict control of the weapons, control of the environment, and to have a hybrid human-machine interaction. Out of these, the last option is the most sophisticated and challenging. It involves humans in the loop and the entire decision making would be left to the human. She would be responsible for the identification of the target and analyzing the environment supported by the AI-based analysis. In the current stage of AI development, this becomes necessary as the intelligence of algorithms does not match that of a human.

Operational Challenges

Technology is always used to enhance their capabilities and to ensure their dominance of force. AWS would be an exceptional addition to its arsenal and probably be a leap forward for the military. While it is so, human control becomes more necessary so that AWS is used for the tactical and strategic advantage of the commanders but not as the commander itself.

The challenge which all the militaries across the world face are the knowledge required to operate such sophisticated AI-based weapons. To take control of the AWS as when required, the supervisor of the systems should have enough knowledge about the working of the system including the working of the algorithm. In addition to that, deployed AWS will not always be operated by the controller. It would be left auto most of the time which makes the operator dormant. SIPRI report provides a concept of ‘safe human-machine ratio’ to overcome the challenges of human-machine interaction. This formula is provided to have optimum operational personnel. If more humans are involved in the loop, co-ordination becomes difficult and less makes it strenuous to handle the decision making.

Nh = Nv + Np + 1

Where,

Nh– number of humans needed

Nv – number of vehicles

Np– number of payloads on those vehicles

+ 1 – additional safety officer.67

However, these three approaches are mutually dependent. On the whole, the report advises establishing a structural, cognitive, educational framework to embed humans into AWS working.[3]

Proceeding further, who, what, when, how are the univocal questions arising with the human control of the AWS. The questions who supervises and what provides a technically similar scenario to the already deployed systems like THAAD. The commander in control of the strategy, deployment, and decisions will have the obligation to ensure that the usage is in line with the IHL. Answering the question when, the involvement of humans is considered not to be just at the stage of usage, but even in the pre-development and development stage according to the GGE report. The last question of ‘how?’ involves the extent and type of human control. It requires proper Compliance with applicable international law along with the ability to retain and exercise human agency and moral responsibility for the use of force and its consequences and ensuring military effectiveness while mitigating risks to friendly forces.

Even if the supervision becomes mandatory, the AWS systems suffer from three different challenges viz. Human inclination towards machine bias, out of the loop controls, under-trust. The probable solution appears again to have a sophisticated human-machine interaction with a new structure to educate, train the operators.

Characteristics to be considered in drafting norms

The key characteristics to be considered –

Weapon SystemEnvironmentUser
Type of target Type of effect Mobility Types and capabilities of sensors System complexity Duration of autonomous operation.Predictability ObservabilityControllabilityThe physical and  cognitive abilities of humansThe user’s ability to understand the system; andThe distribution of human control.

1st column indicates the developmental and operational limits of the AWS. Of course in the view of ethical and humanitarian concerns, if there is a scientific solution for the latter, there may arrive a situation where the military establishment would consider realizing Elllul’s technological society.

2nd column emphasizes the restrictions on the operations to avoid civilian harm. One can think of not approving the usage of AWS in civilian spaces. Well, there is always a counter-argument that machines might be more efficient in differentiating combatants to innocent civilians, given their sematic censors, facial recognition algorithms. Surprisingly, the report has not touched on this aspect. 

3rd column, human-machine interaction is a vivid encouragement of human supervision and retaining the ability to intervene in the AWS at any point.

Finally, the overarching concern regarding human control and ethical usage looms on the efficient international norms. The problem of accountability and ethical debates shows that states are not concerned with the technology itself but the absence of laws. So the debate should revolve around the establishment of legal structures, both nationally and internationally to develop and use AI systems in the military. The above-categorized attributes become central in drafting the human control structures to deploy AWS into the armed forces. The complex interconnectedness of AI development and its integration into the latest weapon systems requires states to have their norms on AWS while adhering to common consensual international laws. This makes states retain their authority to determine the extent of human control and at the same time encourage the international scientific community to actively engage in the development of scientific solutions to uncertain autonomy.

On a concluding note, reiteration on the objectivity and contextual definitions of AWS, fear of un-ethical calls being taken by the autonomous systems and the loss of human agency takes us to the texts of French Philosopher, Jacques Ellul. His account -‘The technological society’ provides that the agency of humans would be completely taken over by techniques and technology with the current development and advancing dependence of humans on technology. Such a society with ubiquitous technology would restrict the knowledge systems of human civilization. With this hindsight, if one reads George Orwell’s 1984, it is sure that they would strongly advocate a ban on AWS development. However, Winner’s ‘autonomous technology’ provides an excellent scrutiny on Ellul’s work, reiterating the importance of understanding the change that the technology brings into the society, and how the social structures change accordingly so that they could accommodate such development. Based on Winner’s account, the SIPRI report and Lele’s article which has been critically looked at here would provide the best possible way towards incorporating AWS into the military with necessary considerations to account for while drafting the international norms.  However, it is in the ethos of military to adopt the advance technology and improve their efficiency.

References

Bostrom, N. (1998). How Long Before Superintelligence? International Journal of Future Studies, 2.

Boulanin, V., Neil, D., Netta, G., & Peldan, C. (2020). Limits of Autonomy in Weapon Systems: Identifying Practical Elements of Human Control. Stockholm: SIPRI.

Lele, A. (2019, January- March). Debating Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. Journal of Defence Studies, 13(1), 33-49.

Winner, L. (1978). Autonomous Technology. USA: MIT Press.


[1] This is for states to arrive at common consensual norms in the development and deployment of AWS. 

[2] Whose intelligence is far ahead of human intelligence. Having the capacity to cognitively comprehend wide variables in the surroundings and calculating numerous aspects simultaneously.

[3]I deliberately chose this articulation‘embed humans into AWS’ because the training of operators, providing a sufficient number of them to an AWS system, involving them in the process, etc. arrives from the pre-conception that soldiers should be able to learn and use AWS. It is seldom thought that AWS should be designed in such a way that it should meet the requirements of a particular commander.

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Test of Agni Prime Missile and India’s Counterforce Temptations

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South Asia is widely regarded as one of the most hostile regions of the world primarily because of the troubled relations between the two nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan. The complex security dynamics have compelled both the countries to maintain nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis each other. India is pursuing an extensive and all-encompassing military modernization at the strategic and operational level. In this regard, India has been involved in the development of advanced missiles as delivery systems and improvement in the existing delivery systems as well. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are solely aimed at India; however, India aspires to fight a ‘two-front war’ against Pakistan and China. Therefore, the size and capability of its nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are aimed at countering both threats. However, most of the recent missile delivery systems made by India appear to be more Pakistan-centric. One recent example in this regard is the recently tested nuclear-capable cannisterized ballistic missile Agni Prime, which is insinuated as Pakistan-centric. These developments would likely further provoke an action-reaction spiral and would increase the pace of conflict in South Asia, which ultimately could result in the intensification of the missile arms race.

Just quite recently, on 28th June 2021, India has successfully tested an advanced variant of its Agni missile series, namely Agni Prime or Agni (P). The missile has a range between 1000-2000 kilometers. Agni Prime is a new missile in the Agni missiles series, with improved accuracy and less weight than Agni 1, 2, and 3 missiles. It has been said that the Agni-P weighs 50 % less than the Agni-3 missile. As per the various media reports, this missile would take the place of Agni 1 and 2 and Prithvi missiles, however officially no such information is available. This new missile and whole Agni series is developed as part of the missile modernization program under the Defence Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) integrated guided missile development program. 

Agni-P is a short missile with less weight and ballistic trajectory, the missile has a rocket-propelled, self-guided strategic weapons system capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Moreover, the missile is cannisterized with the ability to be launched from road and rail. The DRDO claimed that the test flight of the missile was monitored by the telemetry radar stations and its trajectory met all the objectives of the mission successfully with high level of accuracy. Agni-P missile because of its range of 1000 to 2000 km is considered a weapon against Pakistan because within this range it cannot target China. Although, India already has different missiles in its inventory with the same range as the newly developed and tested Agni-P missile, so the question arises what this missile would achieve. 

Since the last few years, it has been deliberated within the international security discourse that India’s force posture is actually more geared towards counterforce options rather than counter-value options. Although, India’s nuclear doctrine after its operationalization in 2003, claims  “massive retaliation” and “nfu” but in reality with developing cannisterized weapons like Agni-P, Agni 5, and testing of hypersonic demonstrative vehicles, India actually is building its capability of “counterforce targeting” or “splendid first strike”. This reflects that India’s nuclear doctrine is just a façade and has no real implication on India’s force modernization.

These developments by India where it is rapidly developing offensive technologies put the regional deterrence equation under stress by increasing ambiguity. In a region like South Asia, where both nuclear rivals are neighbors and distance between both capitals are few thousand kilometers and missile launch from one side would take only a few minutes in reaching its target, ambiguity would increase the fog of war and put other actors, in this case, Pakistan in “use it or lose it” situation, as its nuclear deterrent would be under threat.

In such a situation, where Pakistan maintains that nuclear weapons are its weapons of last resort and to counter threats emerging from India, its nuclear deterrence has to hold the burden of covering all spectrums of threat. It might be left with no choice but to go for the development of a new kind of missile delivery system, probably the cannisterized missile systems as an appropriate response option. However, as Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence is based on principle of “CMD” which allow Pakistan to seek deterrence in a cost-effective manner and also by not indulging in an arms race. Therefore, other than the threat of action-reaction dynamic developments like Agni P by India, would make weapons more accurate and lethal, subsequently conflict would be faster, ambiguous, and with less time to think. In such a scenario, as chances of miscalculation increase, the escalation dynamics would become more complex; thus, further undermining the deterrence stability in South Asia.

India’s counter-force temptations and development of offensive weapons are affecting the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia. The deterrence equation is not getting affected just because India is going ahead with the development of offensive technologies but because of its continuous attempts of negating the presence of mutual vulnerability between both countries. Acknowledgement of existence of mutual vulnerability would strengthen the deterrence equation in the region and help both countries to move forward from the action-reaction spiral and arms race. The notions such as the development of offensive or counterforce technology or exploiting the levels below the nuclear threshold to fight a war would not be fruitful in presence of nuclear weapons. As nuclear weapons are weapons to avert the war and not to fight the war.

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Unmanned Aircraft Systems & The Annihilistic Future

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The unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones were introduced as a useful means to military, commercial, civilian and humanitarian activities but yet it ends up in news for none of its original purposes. Drones have rather resulted as a means of mass destruction.

The recent attacks on the technical area of the Jammu Air Force Station highlights the same. This was a first-of-its-kind terror attack on IAF station rather the Indian defence forces that shook the National Investigation Agency to National Security Guard. The initial probe into the attacks directs to involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based out of Pakistan, in the drone attacks as the aerial distance from the point of attack was just 14 kilometers. The attacks took place via an Electric multi-rotor type drone between 11:30 P.M to 1:30 A.M on 27th June, 2021.

The above incident clearly points out the security issues that lie ahead of India in face to the asymmetrical warfare as a result of drones. The Indian Government after looking at the misuse of drones during the first wave of the pandemic realised that its drone regulations were nowhere sufficient and accountable and hence passed the Unmmaned Aircraft Rules, 2021. These rules imposed stricter requirement for obtaining license and authorisations by remote pilots, operators, manufacturers or importers, training organisations and R&D organisations, thereby placing a significantly high burden on the applicants but at the same time they also permit UAS operations beyond visual sight of line and allowing student remote pilots to operate UAS.

But these rules still don’t have any control on the deadly use of drones because multi-rotor drones are very cheap and readily available and what makes them lethal is their ability to be easily detected, additionally the night time makes it even worse. Their small size grants them weak radar, thermal, and aural signatures, albeit varying based on the materials used in their construction.

The pertinent issue to be understood here is that these rules can never ensure safety and security as they cannot control the purpose for which these drones maybe used. There are certain factors that are to be accounted to actually be receptive to such imminent and dangerous threats. Firstly, significantly increasing urban encroachments  in areas around defence establishments, particularly air bases, has proved to be fatal. If frontline bases like Jammu or be it any other base when surrounded by unbuffered civilization poses two pronged problems, first it acts as high chances of being a vantage point for possible attackers and second, it also hampering the defence mechanism to come to an action. It is not limited to drone concerns but there have been cases of increased bird activity that has once resulted in engine failure of an IAF Jaguar and has caused similar problems all along.

Another important factor is that of intelligence. The Anti-drone systems will take their time to be in place and it is still a distant call to ascertain how effective will these systems be, so in the time being it is pertinent to focus on intelligence which may include sales and transfers of commercial drone, or the hardware that is required to build a basic multi-rotor drone. These are not something extraordinary because it is even in news when Pakistani drones were being used to supply weapons and ammunition to terror networks on Indian soil. Also, the past experience in handling ISIS have shown the weightage of intelligence over defensive nets.

Intelligence is no doubt a crucial factor in anticipation of drone attacks but what cannot be done away with is the defense mechanism. Efficient counter-drone technology is the need of the hour. DRDO has developed such technology that could provide the armed forces with the capability to swiftly detect, intercept and destroy small drones that pose a security threat. It is claimed that solution consists of a radar system that offers 360-degree coverage with detection of micro drones when they are 4km away, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors for detection of micro drones up to 2 km and a radio frequency (RF) detector to detect RF communication up to 3 km and is equipped for both soft kills as well as hard kills.

Hence, the above analysis brings out the need of the application of an international instrument because the technology used in such drone attacks is at an evolving stage and the natural barriers still have an upper hand over be it either flying a pre-programmed path aided by satellite navigation and inertial measurement units (IMUs), or hand controlled to the point of release or impact, both methods have significant limitations as satellite and IMU navigation is prone to errors even when it comes to moderate flight ranges while manual control is subject to the human limitations such as line of sight, visibility as well as technical limitations such as distance estimation of the target, and weak radio links. An example of this could be the Turkish-made Kargu-2 model of killer drone can allegedly autonomously track and kill specific targets on the basis of facial recognition and Artificial Intelligence (AI). As the AI becomes better and better, these drone attacks become more and more terminal.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an eye opener for India as well as the world as none of the countries considered the possibility of bio-defenses or made a heavy investment in it even when there was awareness about lethal effects of genetic engineering. Hence, it should be the priority of the government to invest heavily in research and make the development of defensive technologies a national priority else the result of artificially intelligent killer drones would be much more catastrophic.

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Russia’s National Security Strategy: A Manifesto for a New Era

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The central feature of the new strategy is its focus on Russia itself. The Russian leadership has every reason right now to turn homeward to address the glaring weaknesses, imbalances, and inequalities of the country’s internal situation.

Russia’s new, forty-four-page National Security Strategy signed by President Vladimir Putin on July 2 is a remarkable document. It is much more than an update of the previous paper, adopted in 2015. Back then, relations with the West had already sharply deteriorated as a result of the Ukraine crisis, but were still considered salvageable; much of the liberal phraseology inherited from the 1990s was still in use; and the world still looked more or less unified. The current version of arguably the most important Kremlin strategy statement—covering not only national security issues, but a whole range of others, from the economy to the environment, and values to defense—is a manifesto for a different era: one defined by the increasingly intense confrontation with the United States and its allies; a return to traditional Russian values; and the critical importance for Russia’s future of such issues as technology and climate.

The strategy lays out a view of a world undergoing transformation and turmoil. The hegemony of the West, it concludes, is on the way out, but that is leading to more conflicts, and more serious ones at that. This combination of historical optimism (the imminent end of Western hegemony) and deep concern (as it is losing, the West will fight back with even more ferocity) is vaguely reminiscent of Stalin’s famous dictum of the sharpening of the class struggle along the road to socialism. Economically, Russia faces unfair competition in the form of various restrictions designed to damage it and hold it back; in terms of security, the use of force is a growing threat; in the realm of ethics, Russia’s traditional values and historical legacy are under attack; in domestic politics, Russia has to deal with foreign machinations aimed at provoking long-term instability in the country. This external environment fraught with mounting threats and insecurities is regarded as an epoch, rather than an episode.

Against this sobering background, the central feature of the strategy is its focus on Russia itself: its demographics, its political stability and sovereignty, national accord and harmony, economic development on the basis of new technologies, protection of the environment and adaptation to climate change, and—last but not least—the nation’s spiritual and moral climate. This inward focus is informed by history. Exactly thirty years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed just as its military power was at its peak, and not as a result of a foreign invasion. Having recently regained the country’s great power status and successfully reformed and rearmed its military, the Russian leadership has every reason now to turn homeward to address the glaring weaknesses, imbalances, and inequalities of the country’s internal situation.

The paper outlines a lengthy series of measures for dealing with a host of domestic issues, from rising poverty and continued critical dependence on imported technology to the advent of green energy and the loss of the Soviet-era technological and educational edge. This certainly makes sense. Indeed, the recent Kremlin discovery of climate change as a top-tier issue is a hopeful sign that Russia is overcoming its former denial of the problem, along with inordinately exuberant expectations of the promise of global warming for a predominantly cold country. After all, the Kremlin’s earlier embrace of digitalization has given a major push to the spread of digital services across Russia.

The strategy does not ignore the moral and ethical aspects of national security. It provides a list of traditional Russian values and discusses them at length. It sees these values as being under attack through Westernization, which threatens to rob the Russians of their cultural sovereignty, and through attempts to vilify Russia by rewriting history. In sum, the paper marks an important milestone in Russia’s official abandonment of the liberal phraseology of the 1990s and its replacement with a moral code rooted in the country’s own traditions. Yet here, the strategy misses a key point at the root of Russia’s many economic and social problems: the widespread absence of any values, other than purely materialistic ones, among much of the country’s ruling elite. The paper mentions in passing the need to root out corruption, but the real issue is bigger by an order of magnitude. As each of President Putin’s annual phone-in sessions with the Russian people demonstrates—including the most recent one on June 30—Russia is governed by a class of people who are, for the most part, self-serving, and do not care at all for ordinary people or the country, instead focusing single-mindedly on making themselves rich on the job. Money—or rather Big Money—has become that group’s top value, and the most corrosive element in today’s Russia. Therein lies perhaps the biggest vulnerability of modern Russia.

On foreign policy, the strategy is fairly elliptic, but it gives a hint of what the upcoming Foreign Policy Concept might include. The United States and some of its NATO allies are now officially branded unfriendly states. Relations with the West are de-prioritized and those countries ranked last in terms of closeness, behind former Soviet countries; the strategic partners China and India; non-Western institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and the Russia-India-China trio; and other Asian, Latin American, and African countries. In addition to U.S. military deployments and its system of alliances, U.S.-based internet giants with their virtual monopoly in the information sphere, and the U.S. dollar that dominates global finances are also seen as instruments of containing Russia.

Overall, the 2021 Russian National Security Strategy seeks to adapt the country to a still interconnected world of fragmentation and sharpening divisions, in which the main battle lines are drawn not only—and not even mostly—between countries, but within them. Victories will be won and defeats suffered largely on domestic turf. Accordingly, it is the Home Front that presents the greatest challenges, and it is there that the main thrust of government policies must be directed.

From our partner RIAC

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