Killer robots and LOAL munitions

A United Nations expert called Thursday for a global moratorium on the testing, production and use of armed robots that can select and kill targets without human command.
(New York Times, hat tip to Adam Elkus)

I wonder how much people discussing this (and I've seen some really, really inept comments on drones both in English and German) are aware about arms technology.

Bat guided glide bomb
The earliest robots capable of lock-on after launch (that is finding their target after launch without further aid from the launch platform) appeared during the Second World War; 1943 IIRC. These were mostly autonomous torpedoes, but also at least one air-surface glide bomb with an active radar seeker.
Lock-on after launch missiles have since become quite common; all torpedoes have this capability in principle and it's the standard mode of operation of lightweight torpedoes. Anti-air and air-air missiles with active radar seeker or modern wide field of view infrared seeker employ lock-on after launch as well. Anti-radar missiles have this capability as standard, and one (Alarm) is meant to be launched even if no emitting radar was detected yet. Anti-ship missiles all employ LOAL modes. Several 'smart' artillery munitions meant to engage tanks employ LOAL (SmArt155, Bonus etc.). 

These are munitions, of course. And save for the Alarm missile, all of them are typically aimed at a particular target, not launched to seek and engage targets which were not identified earlier.

Now let's add one more example; the Brimstone missile, which can be launched at a general area (such as a road) and tasked to engage enemies there. Is this killer robot enough?

Maybe one step closer to the "drones"; the cancelled Taifun missile/drone, a ground-launched drone (missile) which was meant to do the same as Brimstone, just slower and with more endurance. The Harpy drone does the same, just specialised on radars.
Is this killer robot enough?

Is the difference between "ammunition" (expended by use) and weapon (re-usable, usually dispensing ammunition) really relevant for the ethics et cetera?

I suspect some drone critics who see drones as something new and especially dangerous are too ignorant to realise that this Pandora's box has been opened decades ago already.
Others merely seem to consider drones as scary-enough low-hanging fruit. Chemical and biological weapons were banned already, most mines were banned and the small arms vilification effort is predictably doomed to fail. They may have selected the scary 'drones' as their new low-hanging fruits in a general anti-military effort.

edit: What about CAPTOR, a capsuled torpedo mine? The capsule could be interpreted as a fully autonomous weapon, with the torpedo as the munition.


  1. As long as its not a mantrid drone I'm not worried

  2. I think they think that we are just around the corner from having terminators hunting us. Very few people in the world understand these things they watch the news and it's not exciting enough to say that we have had weapons that could hunt on there own for a long time. i would bet that when it is talked about they show a clip from the movies.

  3. Considering the poor reliability of drones, I think arming them, whether these are autonomous or remotely piloted, is a bad idea. They're expensive, they don't do the job any better than a human pilot, and they are only useful for foreign wars against incompetent opponents. And because the human risk element is gone, the threshold for use of force is lowered considerably. Not that it hasn't, anyway...

    For surveillance and reconnaissance, however, they can be quite useful. Handheld RC vehicles with cameras and microphones aren't expensive at all, and can be quite easily used to good effect.

    1. The thing that you miss is that without a pilot it makes it much safer to use them. think about this one gets shot down you have no need to have rescue people ready. No family to say how sorry you are their love one is dead or missing.

    2. Safer for the pilot, maybe, but not for the people on the ground. There have been several cases of friendly fire, and of misidentification ("On Violence", in SO's blogroll, has at least one personal story on that). How many innocent people have been killed in drone strikes along with their intended targets?

      If you want to keep your people out of harms way, don't go to war. There's the argument that if a politician isn't willing to send his own son, it isn't worth it. And then, of course, there's the debate on risk aversion.

    3. "How many innocent people have been killed in drone strikes along with their intended targets?"
      Far fewer than in manned air strikes....

    4. In total, or per strike?
      Also, do you count all years, or just those there have been air strikes when you answer the first question? Do you count all the years when drones where barely deployed? Do you think there are more drone strikes per year than manned strikes these days?

      Then of course there is the issue of how to identify innocents, Obama famously defined anyone danger close to a target as an enemy combatant, and that of course reduces the amount of innocents killed...

    5. "Obama famously defined(...)"

      I have missed (and doubt) this.
      Source please or it didn't happen.

    6. Well, to be precise this is not directly attributable to him in any source I know of. Rather the situation is this: the new york times has a long article about how Obama is personally deeply involved in the "drone strike program"

      That article also mentions that the program "... in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent" a definition that Obama is said to have accepted.

      (Quote from page 3)

      I don't know that strike zone is "danger close", but this detail is not important for the point made. Also, I guess "famously defined" is hyperbole if taken in a wide meaning, although I think it does deserve more fame than it apparently has.

  4. S O9 July 2013 16:56

    This is the equivalent of moving the burden of proof from accuser to defendant in a trial. It's quite often used in combat situations, if not military affairs in general.

    Munitions are in exercises and war often expended if the user thinks the odds of hitting a target are fine - even if statistical analysis afterwards reveals that quite often the contacts were false positives. This happens a lot against submarines, for example.
    Similarly, U.S. GI was trained to shoot only if certain about the target early in WW2, but this shifted because of combat experience towards a much lower threshold.
    A bush moved? Open fire!

    It makes sense to shoot if in doubt, and it is indeed possible to claim that almost no drone would ever shoot at anything if a court trial-like "beyond reasonable doubt" standard was applied.
    The risk of unintended consequences accompanies almost all actions, and tolerating it is a requirement for effective use of drone armaments.

    A bunker was hit in '91 in Iraq, with plenty civilians dying inside. The last two decades Western air forces had a fetish for bunker defeat munitions. I don't see any reason to believe future attacks on urban bunkers would exclude the possibility of civilian deaths.