Warnings over 'sci-fi' warfare as BAE showcases autonomous drone

By staff writers
September 12, 2011

Two NGOs have expressed alarm that the arms company BAE Systems will this week showcase a new “autonomous” military drone at the London arms fair.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, allow bombs to be dropped by a “pilot” sitting thousands of miles away. But BAE's “Mantis” drone is the prototype for a fully autonomous weapon that flies with no human decision-maker involved.

The two Christian NGOs - the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) and the Speak Network - say they are alarmed that that this sort of “sci-fi weapon” is appearing without public debate. They warned that there has been a shift to robotic warfare in recent years that has received very little parliamentary attention.

They said that BAE’s decision to showcase Mantis at DSEi is further evidence that the arms industry is pushing for the development of ever more autonomous drones. The government does not appear to be resisting this trend.

US-controlled drones have been blamed for heavy numbers of civilian deaths in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Drones are also used by UK forces bombing parts of Afghanistan.

The UK drones are currently operated by British staff based in the US. Defence Secretary Liam Fox recently announced that from next year, they will be operated from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Many see the move as a sign of the increasing 'normalisation' of drone warfare.

FoR and Speak have for some time criticised the UK government for refusing to answer questions about civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in Afghanistan. They point to evidence that drones encourage a 'playstation mentality' on the part of operators and military commanders based thousands of miles away from those they are wounding or killing.

The two groups have organised a peaceful protest and street theatre tomorrow (Tuesday 13 September) outside the offices of General Atomics in Liverpool Street, London. The company produces the Reaper drones currently used by the UK government in Afghanistan.

The protest is one of a number expected to take place in response to the opening of the arms fair, known formally as Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi). FoR and Speak are two of the twenty organisations affiliated to the Stop the Arms Fair coalition.

The NGOs have called for “full, serious and urgent public and parliamentary debate about the destructive rise of armed drones before any further political and financial investment is made by the UK government”.

FoR's Amy Hailwood said, “We would like to see a parliamentary committee assess the evidence in relation to armed drones. It should hear evidence from NGOs working in the regions in which armed drones are currently used.”

Concerns have also been expressed by Noel Sharkey, a Sheffield University professor and member of the Committee for Robot Arms Control. Sharkey is known to television viewers for his part in the show Robot Wars.

“There is [a] worldwide push among technically sophisticated countries to develop ever more autonomous weapons systems,” said Sharkey, “The UK should lead the way in discussing the way towards limiting and controlling the technology while it is still possible”.


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