Meaning-less Human Control: Lessons from air defence systems on meaningful human control for the debate on AWS

Ingvild Bode, Tom Watts

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report

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A new report co-published today by Drone Wars UK and the Centre for War Studies; University of Southern Denmark examines the lessons to be learned from the diminishing human control of air defence systems for the debate about lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) – ‘Killer Robots’ as they are colloquially called.

In an autonomous weapons system, autonomous capabilities are integrated into critical functions that relate to the selection and engagement of targets without direct human intervention. Subject expert Professor Noel Sharkey, suggests that a Lethal Autonomous Weapon System can be defined as “systems that, once activated, can track, identify and attack targets with violent force without further human intervention”. Examples of such systems include BAE Systems’ Taranis drone, stationary sentries such as the Samsung Techwin SGR-A1, and ground vehicles such as the Kalashnikov Concern Uran-9.

Air Defence Systems are an important area of study in relation to the development of LAWS as, they are already in operation and, while not completely autonomous due to having a human operator in control, they have automated and increasingly autonomous features. Vincent Boulanin and Maaike Verbruggen’s study for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that 89 states operate air defence systems. These includes global military powers such as the US, the UK, France, Russia, and China but also regional powers such as Brazil, India, and Japan.

The ‘Meaning-less human control’ report draws on a new data catalogue constructed by the report’s authors, Ingvild Bode and Tom Watts, to examine automation and autonomy in 28 air defence systems used across the world, and analyses high-profile failures of such systems including the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 (1988), Malaysian Airlines MH 17 (2014), Ukrainian Airlines PS752 (2020), and two instances of fratricide involving the Patriot Air Defense System in the Second Gulf War (2003). Its central argument is that the integration of autonomy and automation into the critical functions of air defense systems has, under some conditions, made human control over specific use of force decisions increasingly meaningless.

The report argues this is happening for three reasons: (1) because of the speed at which these systems operate, (2) because of the complexity of the tasks they perform, and (3) because of the demands their use places human operators under. As more and more tasks have been delegated to machines, the human operators of air defence systems have changed from active controllers to more passive supervisors. In a practical sense, this has meant that human operators have come to fulfil minimal but at the same time impossibly complex roles lacking a sufficient understanding of the decision-making process, sufficient situational understanding, and the time to properly think about decisions. Taken together, the quality of control that human operators can exercise in specific use of force situations has incrementally become more meaningless than meaningful.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherDrone Wars UK
Number of pages72
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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