Fully Autonomous Combat Drones Allegedly Deployed Against Forces in Libya

"Drone" by AK Rockefeller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A United Nations Security Council report has detailed that in March, Libya’s UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA), may have deployed autonomous combat drones against Haftar Armed forces (HAF), loyal to warlord, Kalif Haftar, in the ongoing Second Libyan Civil War.

The report notes that: “the lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true “fire, forget and find” capability”. It also details that Haftar’s forces, “were neither trained nor motivated to defend against the effective use of this new technology and usually retreated in disarray”.

Commonly referred to a ‘loitering munitions’ in military tech circles, the report noted that the autonomous weapons system the STM Kargu-2, had been manufactured and sold to the GNA by supporting power Turkey, constituting a violation of the 2011 UN Security Council resolution on arms sales Libya.

Turkey, however, is by no means the first state to violate this arms embargo on Libya, as the U.S’ collusion with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2011, also saw arms supplied to the rebel Libyan forces, then assembled under the banner of the National Transitional Council (NTC).

The clandestine supply of arms and military training for Libyan rebel forces was part of the wider NATO backed campaign against Muammar Gaddafi, which effectively created the ongoing conflict and humanitarian disaster which ravage Libya today.

Whilst the use of such autonomous weapons technology, may for some conjure imagery of a nightmarish dystopic future of conflict against killer robots, its use and development has been foreseen and campaigned against for nearly a decade now.

The ‘Campaign To Stop Killer Robots’, a coalition of NGO’s, has since 2012 worked toward the banning of autonomous weapons, on the grounds that allowing machines to make complex ethical decisions “crosses a moral threshold”, makes “the decision to go to war easier”, and could have grave consequences if deployed to civil policing and security.

“Killer Robots” by theglobalpanorama (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The ‘Future of Life Institute’ also penned an open letter from robotics researchers in 2015, to raise public awareness on the pernicious application of AI technology in developing autonomous weaponry, which stands to represent “the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.”

Zachary Kallenborn, a Policy Fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, warns that if such technology is not banned, or regulated, swarms of autonomous drones could pose similar dangers as those presented by certain weapons of mass destruction.

The use of remote weaponry requiring no human control also raises serious issues around accountability, as Kallenborn highlights that “the event illustrates a key challenge in any attempt to regulate or ban autonomous weapons: how can we be sure they were even used?” Such a question most certainly seems pertinent given the UN report’s ambiguous language and seeming uncertainty on the events and their details.

Whilst appearing as a new wave of military innovation, drone technology has arguably been in development since 1849, when Austria used hot air balloons to drop bombs on the Republic of Venice.

During the Second World War, the term drone began to be used, after the UK converted bi-planes to be radio controlled from the ground, to act as target practice for anti-aircraft gunners.

Drone technology also made significant advancements during the NATO’s campaign in the former Yugoslavia, where the airborne endurance of drones allowed NATO forces to eventually pinpoint Serbian Army positions in the thick Balkan forests.

The advent of the U.S.’ War on Terror’ in 2001, saw the first instances of drones being fitted with missile systems. Between January 2004 and February 2020, the U.S. launched 14,040 unmanned drone strikes across Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya, in their own campaign of terror, that killed an estimated 2200 civilians including 454 children.

With the U.S. military having been the pioneers of remote warfare, it comes with some irony that one of their former clients, Haftar, who spent 20 years of his life in Langley, Virginia, home of the CIA, who also provided him a training camp, should now be on the receiving end of the newest developments in combat drone technology.

A 2018 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), made attempts at a treaty that would have banned fully autonomous weapons, but the move was blocked by Australia, Israel, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S, who wished to further to explore the advantages of such systems. The latest events in Libya, in whatever form they happened, will likely demand renewed attention from campaign groups and world leaders alike, though some in horror and others with intrigue.

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