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back to article UN to call for 'pre-emptive' ban on soulless robot bomber assassins

Picture this dystopian scenario. A robotic jet aeroplane takes off on a bombing mission. But this is not one of the "Predator" or "Reaper" drones in use today above Afghanistan - there's no human pilot in constant control as there is with those, and once the jet is in the air there's no way for human commanders to communicate …

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WTF?

I'm reminded of a decade or so back when some part of the Vast Military/Industrial Complex invented a laser-weapon which was intended to blind enemy combatants.

Various of the usual suspects [peace groups, United Nations, 'development' charities etc] kicked up a big fuss about how deeply ghastly and truly 'inhumane' such a weapon would be.

"OK" said the representatives of the Vast Military/Industrial Complex, "In that case we'll just continue to use lead and blow the enemy's brains out in the traditional fashion".

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Blinding laser

Blinding laser is worse than bullets.

Just like gas attacks, same league.

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The possibility of mass blinding of bystanders seems to have been a driver there.

It's good that laser anti-personnel weapons are banned.

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Anonymous Coward

When you are being shot at you have a chance of avoiding death. Blinding everyone at a touch of a button is inhumane, you might as well drop an atomic bomb on them instead.

Have you not seen sci-fi depictions of what mass blindness would be like? Day of the Triffids for example.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Blinding laser

Not sure about that, I'd rather be blind than dead....

But I agree they should be banned, more because they would me more likely to be used, less restraint would be shown... Now some kind of phaser that can knock someone out without killing them, thats what we need!

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Megaphone

f__k the UN and drones too i guess

Not to defend the whole end run around due process that is drone killings but I wonder if the UN is doing this to get people to quit talking about how their workers killed 8000 people in Haiti with cholera that has been in the news lately (honestly Nepal quit trying to help, 3rd world countries should help themselves first). They did more harm than good after the Haitian earthquake and there is nothing those UN Euro bureaucrats want to see happen less than for the courts to take away the hard earned money they themselves extorted out of taxpayers around the world.

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Anonymous Coward

Autonomous weaponry

I have no problem with it so long as they are pointed at the worlds worst aggressor during the beta test phase, namely the United States of America.

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Re: Autonomous weaponry

Don't worry it will be but by our security services looking to keep us "safe". Nothing to hide, nothing to fear and all that jazz.

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Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

The worst part is the stupid UN wants two billion from member states to fix its own f__kup. Yeah good luck with that. Times are a bit tough and money is a bit tight to being giving to Euro bureaucrats to do nothing but talk about things in some resort in Monaco or hell even in New York.

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I've read the classified military reports on the weapons. Even the proponents weren't crazy about the idea of permanently disabling thousands of people, bystanders and enemy alike, not to mention occasional blue on blue events.

Frankly, I'm glad that they were banned. The only good thing to come out of their development was some decent defenses against laser devices.

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Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

In the news lately?! Wow, but you have a glacial time sense.

That was news well over a year ago, as the cholera was brought to Haiti by Nepalese forces who were sent to help Haiti out.

Meanwhile, the aid was so utterly ineffective as to nearly be non-existent.

As for due process, when are all of the old allied powers going to apologize to Germany for bombing a hell of a lot of a city just to hit one leader or military target during WWII? That was, in the view of those who proclaim drone strikes on terrorists as extra-legal summary execution, the very same thing on a far more massive scale.

It's called war. It isn't precise, it is far from pretty. Indeed, I far prefer wars to be damned ugly. It helps prevent idiots from declaring one every ten minutes, notwithstanding Bush the Lesser.

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Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

In other words, to hell with the people whose nation was shattered by a natural disaster because the UN screwed up relief.

May you receive the same level of mercy that you desire to accord others in your time of need.

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Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

>In other words, to hell with the people whose nation was shattered by a natural disaster because the UN screwed up relief.

Not all all. Haiti deserves a helping hand. But not by the UN who has shown all they do is talk, gobble up money, and at best do nothing and often make things worse. NGOs are the way to go there. Still honestly I would rather give to charity closer to home. These days don't have to look far to find someone that needs help.

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Re: f__k the UN and drones too i guess

>In the news lately?! Wow, but you have a glacial time sense.

BBC released a report in the last few days showing how the program the UN announced last year in Haiti to fix the cholera mess they made (and deflect blame) has been a total failure. The UN turned around and blamed it on everyone not giving them more money.

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Mushroom

Not sure I get this

I always thought that a missile like the tomahawks etc are launched with a preset target which it then autonomously flies to and impacts.

The report as I saw seemed to be referring to re-usable robot craft capable of many missions and capable of selecting their own target rather than a specific assigned target.

I may have misunderstood but I think the UN may be referring to re-usable craft rather than fire once.

PGB.

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Re: Not sure I get this

Exactly - a cruise missile is just a naval bombardment on steroids

This is a remote install minefield.

Send a drone to loiter over an enemy camp (or wedding party, or village in Gaza). It's programmed to shoot/missile/bomb any target (or women collecting water) that appears on the street

At the end of the news cycle you move the drones to the next village.

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WTF?

Re: Not sure I get this

....the UN may be referring to re-usable craft rather than fire once.

So the idea is to keep countries that cannot afford to chuck robotic missiles away out of the autonomous warfare business?

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Coat

Re: Not sure I get this

So the UN is making a stand against recycling??!

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Pirate

Re: Not sure I get this

"......capable of selecting their own target rather than a specific assigned target....." Acoustic homing torpedoes have been in use since the tail end of WW2. The air-dropped version was completely self-guiding, selecting a target by acoustics and homing on it. But then I suppose trendy "freedom fighters" don't have submarines.....

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Re: or wedding party, or village in Gaza

Surely the point is that the kind of poor decision making that lies at the heart of wedding party/blue on blue attacks is pretty much always down to a bad choice made quickly by a gung ho kid high on adrenalin. Seems pretty reasonable to me - from a tactical standpoint;

planes better than infantry - less casualties (our guys... of course), less collateral damage.

drones better than planes - likely much less casualties (again, our guys), even less collateral damage.

totally autonomous airstrikes - no casualties, no collateral damage (potentially)

Of course giving the fuckwit at the end of pennsylvania avenue a way to distract his 300 million serfs with a big bang in someplace they have never heard of with absolutely NO downside....

Big Mistake.

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Re: Not sure I get this

Sinking merchant shipping without warning was one of the war crimes Admiral Dönitz was charged with at Nuremberg. So unless your homing torpedoes can stop, put up their country's flag, wait for the crew to get into lifeboats and then sink the ship - you might be in trouble.

Unless of course you are on the winning side!

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Preplanned targets != targets of opportunity

Lewis has certainly dropped the ball in not spotting the difference.

A cruise missile does indeed only fly to its pre-programmed target. While its flight is autonomous it is not making any kill/no-kill decisions. Those decisions were made by a meatsack before launch.

Whether or not the vehicle destroys itself (cruise missile) or returns (UAV) is largely irrelevant.

Since the 1980s or so there have been missiles and torpedoes that select their own targets. For example the acoustic torpedoes that can be dropped into the sea to identify and destroy targets while being smart enough to not destroy your own subs. In the 1980s there were also tank killer missiles that would look for something that resembled an enemy tank and then autonomously decide to destroy it.. These applications have very constrained parameters controlling the decisions they make.

It would seem that what the UN is talking about are drones that just fly patrols/missions without preset targets and just identify and attack targets of opportunity.That potentially makes for some hard decisions to get right. eg. Is that column of enemy soldiers a legitimate target or are they a column of POWs already captured?

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Re: Not sure I get this

Some models did have self-targeting for naval targets. It was launched on a general bearing and sought the enemy vessel. The same is true of the harpoon missile.

The same is quite true of many torpedoes, for they can be snap launched and search for a target. That technology existed all the way back to WWII.

Dude's gonna need a serious time machine!

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Re: Not sure I get this

Torpedoes weren't a submarine only weapon. Remember torpedo boats?

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Re: or wedding party, or village in Gaza

"planes better than infantry - less casualties (our guys... of course), less collateral damage."

Aircraft can't cordon and search and most certainly cannot clear a building. You still need infantry.

"drones better than planes - likely much less casualties (again, our guys), even less collateral damage."

Funny how the neighbors to the house getting blown up are upset about their house falling on them. I've personally witnessed such things and do call it collateral damage. A bomb, be it a missile, iron bomb, JDAM, etc is still imprecise due to its warhead size.

"totally autonomous airstrikes - no casualties, no collateral damage (potentially)"

See the above and also consider, one has to figure out how to let the drone figure out what is a valid target and what is not.

In that, I see great difficulty.

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Re: Not sure I get this

There was the US-developed Kettering "Bug" cruise missile from 1918 - worked with a mechanical clock/gyro affair and was propeller driven. About as successful as a test project could be early on (2 of 6 successes with one set of tests, 4 of 11 with another). Seems the Army was worried about it going awry over allied troops, plus the end of the war put it out of consideration for acquisition...

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FAIL

Re: Not sure I get this

" But then I suppose trendy "freedom fighters" don't have submarines....."

...

I think you'll find, brains, that you don't get a huge amount of civilian submarines.

You do get lots of civilian cars/trucks that could be mistaken for enemy combatants though...

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FAIL

Re: MrPatrick Re: Not sure I get this

"I think you'll find, brains, that you don't get a huge amount of civilian submarines....." Oh dear, it seems you were so quick to bleat you missed my sarcastic implication that the UNHRC's dictatorial members might actually be more worried about the impact of improved US drone capability in light of their support and funding of the terror groups that US drones are often used against. And let's not mention their terror that improved drones could lead to more "regime change" - nothing upsets a dictator more than the chance he will be on the end of a Western "intervention".

".....You do get lots of civilian cars/trucks that could be mistaken for enemy combatants though..." Yeah, 'cos all those "freedom-fighters" all wear uniforms and follow international laws on warfare, right? Current meat sack pilots have rules of engagement, it will not be too impossible to program the same into drones. Indeed, drones should be better as they cannot fall foul of human desires for vengeance or a predisposition to see what they want to see. Like you are determined see the worst due to your socio-political blinkers.

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Re: hard decisions/legitimate targets

Nothing new about that either. I understood from my father that even in 1951 it was impossible to distinguish an oxcart containing ammunition from an oxcart containing the rice crop when you were a few hundred feet up in a Fairey Firefly with people shooting at you. An automated system might even be better at getting the identification right than the mk1 eyeball.

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They do have different capabilities

They are supposed to be able to:

-Hit moving targets

-Identify targets of opportunity

-Identify main target.

It is different sending missile to some coordinates than sending a target and expected coordinates.

As for the rest, I agree with you.

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Terminator

This doesn't go far enough

They should also ban them from time travel.

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WTF?

So it's OK

As long as the robot jets are Kamikaze but not if they fancy a trip home afterwords?

*boggle*

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Re: So it's OK

Afterwards sorry.

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There is potentially a difference.

Perhaps the distinction they're making is that cruise missiles attack stationary targets. Bunkers, buildings, bridges or other infrastructure. Or mobile stuff which is known to be parked at a particular position. The target is designated by humans ahead of time.

However, a truely autonomous weapon would decide on its own targets during the mission. So it could hit mobile targets like tanks, personnel carriers, infantry, ships &c.

I'm not an expert, but that seems like a decent distinction.

Whether banning weapons of war is a good idea or not I'm unsure. Why not ban everything, so soldiers have to fight unarmed, hand to hand?

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Re: There is potentially a difference.

cos sooner or later someone will pick up a stone and off we all go again

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Coat

Re: There is potentially a difference.

"Whether banning weapons of war is a good idea or not I'm unsure. Why not ban everything, so soldiers have to fight unarmed, hand to hand?"

Naked?

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Re: There is potentially a difference.

'However, a truely autonomous weapon would decide on its own targets during the mission. So it could hit mobile targets like tanks, personnel carriers, infantry, ships &c.'

Most naval missiles already do that, you point them in the general direction of the target and when they get there they search for the first thing that looks like a ship near where you said one was. It does rather depend on the situation not changing too dramatically in the time it takes the missile to get there if you're not going to sink the cruise liner full of nuns and orphans...

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Joke

Re: There is potentially a difference.

because I'm pretty sure requiring all solders to be double amputees would me some objections!

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Joke

Re: There is potentially a difference.

"cos sooner or later someone will pick up a stone and off we all go again."

And as soon as someone so much as picks up a stone on a field of conflict you charge them with war crimes. Simples!

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Re: There is potentially a difference.

Its fairly easy to spot a huge metal object floating on a flat sea, as opposed to distinguishing that group of vehicles to this one.

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Re: There is potentially a difference.

And as soon as someone so much as picks up a stone on a field of conflict you vaporise them from orbit with your automated PeaceSat.

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FAIL

Re: MrPatrick Re: There is potentially a difference.

"Its fairly easy to spot a huge metal object floating on a flat sea, as opposed to distinguishing that group of vehicles to this one." Yeah, and civilian shipping has never been sunk "by accident"? But what am I saying, the people you are so concerned about TARGET civilian transportation, such as the MS Achille Lauro hijacking. Shall we talk about their deliberate suicide bombing of buses, trains and aircraft as well? Go buy a clue.

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Dont they already exist..and not just cruise..

Believe there are already bombs of this type.

Dropped from an aircraft they float down under parachute, scanning for tanks beneath them.

If they detect armour, woosh boom.

If they dont detect armour they fall to the ground and sit as landmines.

The point being, they decide if what they sense is a tank or not.

Also, arent there automated guns scattered in the DMZ? deciding if movement around them is a human or not?

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Mushroom

Re: Dont they already exist..and not just cruise..

Would that be a CBU-97? The 'skeets' are are supposed to disable under either when below 15m or timeout after a while otherwise it would be counted as a cluster bomb under UN rules.

It could also be argued something such as our flying robotic overlords making a decision is better than the Cruise Missile hitting with pin-point accuracy only to find that the target isn't valid since launch. Just fit a big red self-destruct button near one of them non-pilot... erm... pilots we're now training: kaboom!

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Re: Dont they already exist..and not just cruise..cluster bomb

good job they are illegal - it would be awful if they were ever deployed!

especially if the people responsible refused to acknowledge international law.

Doh!!

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Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

I can't help but think this is a new iteration of a very old argument. The first firearms were lambasted as uncivilized, while hacking bits off each other with sharp things was fine. That's the whole point of the arms race since fists and stones: to kill your enemy without being killed. Preferably, you deny your enemy the CHANCE to kill you. Fair fights lose too many soldiers, so the goal is to make the fight as "unfair" as possible.

It's this which causes the outrage, as anti-war types and those on the receiving end of better weapons whine about inhumanity. What are they proposing instead? War is somehow more moral if the enemy has more chance to kill your citizens?

War is hell, there's no civilizing it. When you fight one, load the dice your way as much as possible and get it done with minimal risk to your citizens. Nothing else makes sense.

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Re: Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

Though quite possible naive, perhaps the distinction is that a human has to make a moral choice about killing.

Soldiers have committed awful atrocities in the name of war in the past. However, they were making a choice albeit under orders. There is always the inherent possibility that the soldier could refuse.

When going into a war situation, there is always the possibility that what you find there isn't what was anticipated. What if your intel was wrong? These are not jihadists, just a load of school kids. Can a machine make that distinction and decide not to blow them all away?

I think that is what is behind this fear.

The comparison with the Tomahawk is a little disingenuous though. These autonomous killing machines are intended for targeted troop-type operations otherwise why wouldn't you just use a big bomb anyway?

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Re: Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

You don't just want to kill. It takes more of the enemy's effort to deal with a seriously injured soldier than a dead one.

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Mushroom

Re: Kill your enemy safely, 500 years on

"the goal is to make the fight as "unfair" as possible."

But your enemy will be pursuing the same goal with whatever resource is available. You send an unmanned drone to a wedding party. "They" send some indoctrinated mule with an exploding rucksack on your public transport.

"War is somehow more moral if the enemy has more chance to kill your citizens?"

War is more moral if the enemy has a chance to kill your military, otherwise it isn't war, it's genocide. If you're not putting your forces in harms way, what incentive is there to seek a diplomatic solution before the first shot is even fired? What is to stop you riding roughshod over anyone who disagrees with you, or gets between you and a chance to make a quick buck? And without a military target, who do you think your enemy is going to attack? One-sided warfare is what causes the outrage, because it encourages powerful nations to behave like bullies and leaves weaker enemies no option but to go for soft targets, i.e they have more chance to kill your citizens.

"War is hell, there's no civilizing it. When you fight one, load the dice your way as much as possible and get it done with minimal risk to your citizens. Nothing else makes sense."

Not resorting to war might make sense. Not propping up corrupt dictatorships then wondering why their oppressed peoples hate us might make sense. Not arming "rebel" groups to fight proxy wars against regimes we don't like then getting a nasty surprise when they turn their weapons on us might make sense. Not going to war on the pretext of imminent destruction in order to secure lucrative oil drilling contracts might make sense.

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