Sunday, November 01, 2020

Armed, Fully Autonomous Drone Swarms Are Weapons Of Mass Destruction

usma  |  AFADS should be classified as weapons of mass destruction. As I argue in my new study at the US Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, AFADS can exceed any arbitrary threshold for mass casualties and are inherently unable to distinguish between military and civilian targets.

Armed, fully autonomous drone swarms should be classified as WMD because of their degree of potential harm and inherent inability to differentiate between military and civilian targets—both of which are characteristics of existing weapons categorized as WMD.

Scalable Harm

The scalability of armed drone swarms means they can bypass any arbitrary threshold for defining “mass destruction”—regardless of whether such a definition is pegged to one thousand casualties, two thousand, or any other number. Whereas the size and impact of conventional weapons are limited by a number of factors, few limits exist on drone swarm scalability. Drone platforms are known, relatively easy to acquire technologies. The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College has identified ninety-five countries with military drones, comprising 171 different types of drone. The technology is rudimentary enough that basic drones can be bought at Best Buy or 3D printed. Converting drones into a swarm only requires the software and hardware to enable the drones to share information and make decisions and the finances to sustain development and acquisition.

Intel’s rapidly improving ability to control increasingly larger numbers of drones illustrates the ease of scaling. In 2016 the company flew one hundred drones simultaneously. In 2017 it flew three hundred drones. By 2018 it managed to fly 1,218 drones then 2,018. Give all 2,018 drones bombs and the collective certainly could inflict mass casualties.

Of course, the exact amount of harm is highly context dependent. Defenders may be armed with counter-drone systems or sophisticated air defenses. If slaughterbots become truly ubiquitous, states may just hang nets everywhere. Conversely, the flexible nature of drone swarms allows them to incorporate adaptations, such as standoff or chemical weapons. Drone swarms may also operate in multiple domains and incorporate antitank weapons, electronic-warfare equipment, or other systems that increase survivability.

Fortunately, so far few examples exist to judge drone swarms’ capacity for harm. The closest example occurred in January 2018, when Syrian rebels launched ten crude drones en masse against a Russian military base in Syria. Although the Russian military claimed it defeated the drones, the Free Alawite movement claimed to have destroyed an S-400 missile launcher valued at $400 million. Evidence on the damage is minimal and both actors have strong incentives to exaggerate or outright lie, so the exact harm is difficult to judge.