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Germany Questions Killer Robots, Drones in Ethics Debate

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Killer Robots Instead Of Soldiers?

(Source: Deutsche Welle German radio; issued May 21, 2013)


Increasingly, drones and robots are being used in combat to replace soldiers in high-risk situations. Some researchers and politicians are concerned that, in future, autonomous machines may reign over life and death.

A Pentagon video shows a fighter jet taking off from a US aircraft carrier. At first glance, the maneuver is unspectacular. A second glance, however, reveals a detail that is not necessarily conspicuous: The X-47B stealth fighter has no cockpit, it is an unmanned drone.

According to the US Navy, drone technology has reached another milestone with the first take-off of a drone the size of a fighter jet from an aircraft carrier. It is a further step toward increasingly independent unmanned weapons systems.

Soldiers of the future

More than 70 countries already use unmanned drones - aerial vehicles that are capable of gathering intelligence, or seeking and, if necessary, eliminating targets. At present, the latter decision is still made by human operators via remote control. Human decision-making, however, seems to be waning, while unmanned fighter robots act increasingly on their own. The pilotless aircraft can already be programmed to maneuver completely autonomously. The X-47B drone is still being tested, but once it is ready for action, the aircraft will be able to conduct missions largely autonomously and without human control.

So far, drones that act entirely on their own - and could be termed autonomous combat robots - do not yet exist. Human operators decide whether or not to attack. However, there is great concern that "military pressure will finally lead to the introduction of autonomous systems," says Jürgen Altmann. The physicist and peace researcher at Dortmund Technical University in Germany co-founded the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), an NGO that urges an international debate on combat robots, including clear rules to restrict their use.

Robots never tire

From a military point of view, the step toward mechanical soldiers is logical: remote controlled robots are tireless; they can conduct riskier maneuvers than human pilots, who always face the threat of being shot down. But, even remote control has its limitations: Communications between the system and the operator can take a few seconds that, in turn, can decide on a mission's success or failure.

According to a Pentagon strategy paper, the US is seeking increased autonomy for unmanned systems over the next 20 to 30 years. Altmann is convinced that the US is not the only country working on autonomous weapons systems. "Other arms producers will follow suit and at some point, part of the armed forces will be fully automated fighters."

To prevent an arms race, ICRAC and other international NGOs have launched a campaign that demands discouraging the development, production and use of autonomous combat robots: "Stop Killer Robots".

Ban on killer robots

A German Green party politician Agnieszka Brugger even advocates outlawing autonomous weapons systems. "We would be well-advised not to blindly go along with such armament dynamics, but instead to refocus on the risks inherent in the technology," she says. Combat robots cannot discern between enemy combatants and civilians - in a combat operation, they are not able to act according to international law. Agnieszka Brugger and Jürgen Altmann agree: replacing soldiers with machines in combat could also lead to a lowering of military leaders' threshold for violence.

"What we need is a global arms control system," Roderich Kiesewetter argues. The retired colonel and head of the German Armed Forces Reservists' Federation says, however, developments should also not be blocked completely. "We must assume there will be states that deliberately turn to fully automated combat technology," he says, stressing the importance of developing defense strategies against autonomous systems.

In Germany, operations involving autonomous combat robots are a long way off. Plans to adapt the US Global Hawk surveillance drone, re-named Euro Hawk for Europe's skies, have failed. A decision on the purchase of foreign drones - and arming them - has been postponed until after parliamentary elections in September. (ends)


Drone Use Raises Ethical Questions In Germany

(Source: Deutsche Welle German radio; issued May 21, 2013)

Unmanned weapons systems are fast becoming an indispensable aspect of modern warfare. But their use raises ethical questions which Germany has just begun to address.

The growing use of so-called remote-controlled drones for surveillance and active warfare has raised a number of ethical questions, prompting a debate between supporters and opponents of the technology in Germany.

A recent discussion saw an international law expert, two foreign policy experts and human rights activists sitting together around a table to mull over possible future military scenarios and their ramifications.

War strategists and foreign policy experts view drone technology as an essential tool in the arsenal of military hardware. They argue that it improves the precision of surveillance in otherwise hard-to-reach terrain or reduces the risk of injury or death for troops on the battlefield.

Opponents, however, see a danger in drones of dehumanizing warfare by raising the threshold of acceptance for collateral damage; that is, of people and property not necessarily targeted by an attack.

The debate in Germany is heating up after Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced and then rescinded – at least for now – his decision to purchase the technology from the United States.

The US has been widely and successfully using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to hunt down suspected terrorists and their hideouts. But many in Germany and Europe are dismayed about this practice.

"Essentially, not only individuals but whole groups of people that fit into a certain behavioral pattern are being killed," argues Peter Rudolf from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Rudolf said the technology was being used under the pretense of fighting terrorism, but that such vagaries would be hard to defend in Germany. The widespread use of unmanned weapons systems by the US is questionable, both ethically and in terms of international law, he maintains.

"When such weapons are employed over the territory of another country, for self-defense, then an armed attack from there must be imminent," said Andreas Zimmermann, a professor of international law at the University of Potsdam in Germany. Even if it is a non-state aggression, say, by a terrorist group, then some present danger of an attack must exist, he argued. But this is not the case, says Zimmermann, which is why he considers the current tactics of the US military to be highly questionable.

For Rainer Arnold, a defense expert with the Social Democrats, "no legal clarification is needed." Legally, it makes no difference whether an attack is manned or unmanned, adding that the choice of weapons determines the outcome. With drones, he said, "you can't take them prisoner, you can only kill them."

One important reason why political leaders like the idea of remote-controlled airplanes has to do with the disposition of the general public. No country likes to see its soldiers sent far from home on dangerous missions. However, the conflicts now and of the future, say most military strategists, will be fought far from one's own borders and a drone is the perfect solution.

"Drones allow their users the luxury of choosing the moment for an attack without the risk to one's own forces," emphasized Anthony Dworkin from the European Council on Foreign Relations. But this, he added, reduces the threshold for conducting a mission. "It's easier for governments and parliaments to commit to a mission, knowing that their own troops will not be at risk," he said.

Zimmermann also stressed another point. "The protective measures enshrined in international law only work because everybody knows they could also be a victim. But, if one side becomes invulnerable, then the other side will also say: I'm just going to kill everybody who comes in front of my Kalashnikov."

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