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   DoD group seeks to give autonomy to armed drones

*Stephen Trimble* /JDW Americas Bureau Chief/
*Washington, DC*

   * A newly public proposal would give unmanned systems the authority
     to fire on enemy weapon systems
   * Law of warfare experts are doubtful of the proposal's legality

*A group within the US Department of Defense (DoD) is seeking to
overturn the dictum that an unmanned system cannot fire its weapons
unless a human operator gives the order. *

A proposal, unveiled publicly in September but never before publicised,
would give "armed autono- mous systems" the authority to shoot to
destroy hostile weapon systems but not suspected combatants.
Accordingly, any people killed or injured in the attack would be
considered the collateral damage of a successful strike on a legitimate

In publicising the concept, supporters are hoping to start a debate
about the DoD's current interpretation of the international law of armed
conflict, which precludes the growing number of armed unmanned systems
from autonomously firing on targets.

"If you stop and think about what this is, it really is a new paradigm
for conducting warfare," John S Canning, a chief engineer at the Naval
Surface Warfare Center and one of the authors of the proposal, told
/Jane's/ on 3 October.

Canning first publicly briefed the proposal, titled 'A Concept of
Operations for Armed Autonomous Systems', in early September at the
Disruptive Technology Conference sponsored by the National Defense
Industries Association.

However, the proposal stems from Canning's work with the Defense Safety
Working Group, a body of the office of acquisition, technology and
logistics within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The working group created a panel to develop "safety precepts" for the
design of unmanned systems. In discussing potential safety issues, the
panel decided to avoid writing precepts that would rule out designs for
unmanned systems that could use weapons autonomously, Canning said.

The group determined that the DoD should review the current policy that
"welds" a human operator to each armed unmanned system, even as their
numbers populating each of the air, ground and naval domains grows

"This [requirement] is a performance- and cost-killer when considering
the employment of large numbers of armed unmanned systems," stated a
slide in Canning's presentation.

"Let's design our armed unmanned systems to automatically ID, target and
neutralise or destroy the weapons used by our enemies - not the people
using the weapons. This gives us the possibility of disarming a threat
force without the need for killing them."

However, two experts on the laws of war contacted by /Jane's/ were not
persuaded that the group's proposal would pass legal review. The chance
that innocent civilians or even a disproportionate number of combatants
could be killed by the misjudgment of a robotic system would still be
the over-riding factor.

"You better have a human looking through that screen", before the
unmanned system takes a shot, said Gary Solis, who recently retired as
the law of war professor at the US Military Academy. The laws of armed
conflict require that for any attack to be legitimate, the attacker must
be able to discriminate between combatants and civilians, as well as
avoid creating damage that is disproportionate to the threat. Allowing
unmanned systems to fire on targets autonomously could violate both of
those principles, Solis said.

For its part, the OSD declined to comment on the specific proposal.
"Current [unmanned systems] operations are consistent with approved law
of armed conflict. Any proposed modifications would require formal DoD
review and staffing," spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said.

The proposal suggests that armed autonomous systems like the <b>Predator
B UAV</b> could be given the authority to fire autonomously.

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