Arms companies including BAE Systems are facing sharp criticism for the growth of robotic weapons that allow operators to kill people thousands of miles away.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian NGO, hosted a gathering in London this weekend (18 September) which discussed the robotic arms race triggered by the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones.
Speakers included Professor Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield, familiar to viewers of TV's Robot Wars.
The British government deploys drones in Afghanistan and has ordered more from BAE. UK drones in Afghanistan are operated from a US Air Force base near Las Vegas.
Chris Cole, Christian peace activist and editor of the blog Drone Wars UK, opened the conference by explaining that "some of us are campaigners, some of us are academics, some of us are individuals with a newspaper and a conscience".
Professor Dave Webb of Leeds Metropolitan University warned that arms companies are competing to develop ever more independent drones with less input from armed forces. He said, “the use of drones has even changed what we mean by warfare” and added that robotic weapons pose an “existential threat”.
Webb suggested that technology could lead to armed forces based mostly in control rooms, whose physical fitness is irrelevant and who are removed from the consequences of their actions.
But he insisted that the public are able to affect the developments, saying, “where it leads to is really up to us”.
FoR launched their new report, entitled Convenient Killing: Armed drones and the playstation mentality.
The report warns that, “while politicians and defence officials issue assurances that armed drones will always have a 'man-in-the-loop' to give the go-ahead before an attack, the military industry seem to be researching and exploring the development of drones that have the capacity to launch weapons autonomously”.
Drone use has increased significantly in recent years. The British reaper drone had been fired 97 times in Afghanistan by July 2010. The US budget allocation for drones increased from $1.7bn in 2006 to $4.2bn in 2010. Eyewitness reports suggest that drones were used extensively by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2009.
The conference included workshops led by Noel Sharkey, Chris Cole, FoR’s Amy Hailwood, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Welsh campaigners working against the drone testing site in Ceredigion.
Recent graduate Jennifer Pillinger told Ekklesia that she had decided to attend the event after hearing about drones for the first time. “It could revolutionise the way wars are fought in the future but it seems to be hidden behind a cloak of secrecy,” she said.
Retired Methodist minister Marie Dove also said she had found the event helpful. “It’s always engaging to meet people from right across the board, from different perspectives,” she explained, “The challenge is to take the message to where it counts”.
FoR is now pressing the government to release details of the civilian casualties caused by UK drones in Afghanistan. A conservative estimate by a US thinktank suggests that US drone attacks in Pakistan have killed one civilian for every two combatants, but no official figures are available.
FoR’s report concludes that, “Drones are the latest in a long line of 'super' new weapons developed and used in the mistaken belief that they will provide a clean and tidy solution to human conflict. Time and again history has proved that this is a myth.”