A recent report by the UK Ministry of Defence has called for public debate on the ethical (and legal) issues surrounding drone warfare. Although rarely discussed, the UK are actually at the forefront of the development of drone warfare. In January 2011, for example, the British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament that more than 124 insurgents had been killed by British drones over the past 29 months. So just why is the British government’s own Defence Ministry now calling for an urgent public debate to occur on this issue?
The answer, in short, lies in the rapid development of drone technology toward fully autonomous (or robotic) systems. Reviewing plans to develop increasingly autonomous aircraft over the next decade, the authors urge a thorough discussion of possible deployment as a matter of urgency:
The pace of technological development is accelerating and the UK must establish quickly a clear policy on what will constitute acceptable machine behaviour in future [...] There is a danger that time is running out – is debate and development of policy even still possible, or is the technological genie already out of the ethical bottle, embarking us all on an incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality?
At present, unmanned aviation vehicles, or drones, are piloted remotely from army bases. An aircraft firing rockets over Afghanistan or Pakistan might be controlled by a pilot sitting 7,500 miles away in the Nevada desert. US Government officials have long confirmed their plans to reduce the level of human input still further, particularly during high-tempo armed offensives. At a press briefing in 2007, a Government representative stated: ‘the roadmap projects an increasing level of autonomy [..] there’s really no way that a system that’s remotely controlled can effectively operate in an offensive or defensive air combat environment.’ John Pike, an expert on defense and director of the Washington security Web site GlobalSecurity.org has estimated that autonomous armed robot systems will be operating by 2020.