The Ministry of Defence has issued a new strategy document for its drones, stating humans will be kept in the decision-making loop – yet critics are unhappy with the questions the doc sidesteps.
Joint Doctrine Publication 0-30.2, published at the start of this week, sets out how the British armed forces will use their unmanned aerial vehicles for warlike operations.
The 84-page publication (available here, PDF) sets out, amongst other things, the four different definitions of what a drone actually is, and mundane process exhortations to military commanders demanding drones come and bomb something or take pictures of it for them.
Unlike most military doctrine documents, the JDP comes across as a glossy brochure intended to sway public opinion:
“There is a further concern that weapon delivery from a distance would leave operators mentally divorced from the consequences of their actions. In reality, remotely piloted aircraft operators can be far more aware of the consequences of their actions than their manned equivalent,” stated the document.
Interested readers should compare and contrast this with, for example, Joint Doctrine Publication 4-00 (PDF), which is about military logistics and really is as interesting as it sounds.
What the JDP doesn’t cover, other than the "stress and trauma" section - noting that drone operators may experience "unique stressors" due to the strain of going from warlike operations to "working from a home base" every day and "balanc[ing] work and family life" - is how drones will be authorised for use by Parliament.
Though the JDP’s authors pooh-pooh the notion that unmanned drones make it morally easier to drop bombs on people, this exact situation came to pass under David Cameron’s coalition government, which was a great fan of using drones to bomb Islamic State extremists – even when Parliament voted against deploying soldiers into Libya.
“Even though it does address some of the ethical and legal issues that are raised by the use of armed drones – albeit reluctantly and simplistically – it can hardly be said to address many of the policy questions that have been raised over the past few years,” said Chris Cole of anti-drone campaign group Drone Wars UK.
While hardly an unbiased source, Cole also highlights how the MoD refuses to reveal details about drone operations that it happily tells world+dog about when manned aircraft are involved.
Meanwhile, the Guardian on Sunday (which persists in calling itself the Observer) said, evidently having been pre-briefed on the JDP:
“The Ministry of Defence insists that its investment in remote technology is now aimed at reducing the risk to troops on battlefields in the so-called ‘last mile’ of combat.”
As for the potential for drones to become fully automated killing machines? The MoD is pretty sanguine about this:
“Commanders and politicians are also highly unlikely to want fully autonomous systems as this could both impede and limit their decision-making both strategically and on the battlefield. The growing recognition that narratives and information are of increasing importance further underlines this reluctance to hand control of lethal force to autonomous systems – no matter how sophisticated they may become.”
They might have a satellite system named Skynet, but you (hopefully) won’t see the Rise of the Machines in the UK any time soon.
The MoD declined to comment. ®