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Who Is Accountable when Drones Kill?

US defense realignment increases reliance on drones and other types of special warfare capabilities

4 min read

Who Is Accountable when Drones Kill?

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a set of new US defense spending priorities (pdf) which would reduce defense spending by $259 billion over the next five years and $487 billion by 2023. As part of the new priorities, the US Army and Marine Corps would see cuts of 72,000 and 20,000 service personnel respectively, some military bases would be closed or realigned, and the US Navy and Air Force would retire a number of ships and aircraft.

However, defense spending will be increased for special ops, cyberwar ops, and unmanned systems. The latter has received a lot of attention this past week in the press. Last Sunday, Peter Singer, the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and author of Wired for War, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “Do Drones Undermine Democracy?

This has been a question Singer been asking for some time (see my interview with Singer for SpectrumThe Rise of the Robot Warriors“), without good answers coming forth from successive US administrations.

In his op-ed, Singer outlines the rapid growth in the use of armed drones to carry out US foreign policy without much debate in the US Congress or in the US public at large about the practice or its implications. He writes that:

“In 2011, unmanned systems carried out strikes from Afghanistan to Yemen. The most notable of these continuing operations is the not-so-covert war in Pakistan, where the United States has carried out more than 300 drone strikes since 2004.”

“Yet this operation has never been debated in Congress; more than seven years after it began, there has not even been a single vote for or against it. This campaign is not carried out by the Air Force; it is being conducted by the C.I.A. This shift affects everything from the strategy that guides it to the individuals who oversee it (civilian political appointees) and the lawyers who advise them (civilians rather than military officers).”

Singer goes on to write:

“I do not condemn these strikes; I support most of them. What troubles me, though, is how a new technology is short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make. Something that would have previously been viewed as a war is simply not being treated like a war.”

This change in attitude toward what constitutes war not only involves the use of unmanned systems, of course, but also government-sponsored application of cyberwar ops against another country’s systems. The use of special ops forces in foreign countries has also created diplomatic challenges, but usually Congress has some (if not much) oversight in their application.

It is interesting as well as troublesome to note that increased defense funding is exactly in the areas where, to use Singer’s words, “short-circuiting the decision-making process” by the executive branch of the US government is possible.

Singer warns in his op-ed that the unfettered use of US unmanned systems outside of declared war zones invites the same types of behavior from other countries that are quickly building their own unmanned systems. The US will be hard pressed to complain about it when it does happen.

Singer ends his op-ed by arguing that the US Congress and Americans as a people need to reclaim their voice in deciding where and when the US applies military force. He writes:

“The Constitution did not leave war, no matter how it is waged, to the executive branch alone.

“In a democracy, it is an issue for all of us.”

While I personally agree with Singer that renewed Congressional involvement is needed, I think the genie is out of the bottle for good on this one, for better or worse. I can’t see the current administration—or the next if it is replaced in this year’s election—voluntarily giving up this new-found power without a monumental fight. And I also don’t see Congress wanting to challenge the executive branch on this issue, because it can blame the President for anything that might go wrong using an unmanned system, and take partial credit for anything that goes right. The current situation fits in well with Congress’s long-standing modus operandi: being able to criticize without having to be accountable.

There was another unmanned aerial system article this week, this time appearing in the LA Times. It concerns the Navy’s new X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS). The story reports that:

“The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.”

I found the story a bit overwrought, although it does raise the points Singer was discussing in his New York Times op-ed. Singer is also quoted in the story as saying that the X-47B is just one of many programs involved in developing armed autonomous aerial systems.

Armed autonomous aerial systems, which the US Air Force envisions being available by 2047(pdf) if not before, pose another set of thorny legal and policy issues that need to be confronted. For example, with current armed unmanned systems, there is at least some level of accountability when a weapon is fired and it hits something that shouldn’t have been hit. In an armed autonomous aerial system that does the same thing, who is accountable?

The LA Times story quotes Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at University of Sheffield, England in regard to the issue of accountability:

“Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability. This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?”

Good questions all, with few good answers.

In the final bit of unmanned system news this week, the US Air Force is planning to cancel the remaining purchases of Global Hawk Block 30 high-altitude surveillance drones due to cost and technical considerations. As a result, the Air Force is now planning to keep its U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which were scheduled to begin to be retired in 2013 and then moved back to 2015, until at least 2023. My bet is that they will be around way after that date.

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