The head of the RAF tells Channel 4 News that the world of Terminator 2 is coming in response to a question about unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as “drones”.
Sir Andrew Pulford, chief air marshal of the RAF, said “autonomous” air vehicles, that can make decisions for themselves, are “undoubtedly” coming.
At a speech held at the DSEI defence industry exhibition at the ExCel exhibition centre in London, Channel 4 News asked the highest ranking officer in the Royal Air Force about the extent to which unmanned aerial vehicles will be used in the air force in the future.
The Terminator 2 type world where machines can make decisions for themselves… that is undoubtedly coming. Sir Andrew Pulford
Sir Andrew responded (see video): “I think as we reshape the air force for the future, we look to replace old with new, we don’t fall into the trap of replacing the old with just a newer type of the old.
“You have to challenge yourself to the role that you need the air platform to undertake.
“What is quite clear is remotely piloted, or autonomous in the longer time – you know, the Terminator 2 type world where machines can make decisions for themselves, we can trust them and send them off to make decisions that at the moment we like to be in thinking place of – that is undoubtedly coming.”
Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as remotely piloted aircraft systems, are a controversial subject. The Predator system, which is remotely piloted, has been used extensively by the Barack Obama administration in the “war on terror”.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that up to 926 civilians have been killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 – and the majority of those deaths have been under President Obama’s administration.
The MoD has no intention of developing any weapons systems that are used without human involvement. MoD spokesperson
However, the Ministry of Defence has emphasised to Channel 4 News that there are no plans to create “fully autonomous” air systems that would be used to kill, or deploy weapons.
Autonomy does already exist in some of the UK military’s weapons systems, such as the Royal Navy’s Phalanx system which has an automatic mode to protect ships from enemy missiles.
However, research is underway into more autonomous systems, raising fears that weapons systems could be developed that can make decisions, without human intervention, to kill.
An MoD spokesperson told Channel 4 News: “The MoD has no intention of developing any weapons systems that are used without human involvement.
“Furthermore, all of our remotely piloted aircraft systems used in Afghanistan to protect troops on the ground are controlled by highly trained military pilots.
“In sum, there are no plans to replace skilled military personnel with fully autonomous systems.”
However, the MoD did say that it is possible that aircraft could be sent to act in a fully autonomous manner on missions, such as surveillance, but that a pilot would be able to take control of the vehicle, and that any decision to deploy weapons would always be made by a human operator.
Despite the MoD’s “unambiguous UK policy” that it will not use autonomous killing systems, human rights charity Reprieve is still concerned about advances in the field.
Jennifer Gibson, an attorney with Reprieve who specialises in the Pakistan drone war, told Channel 4 News that the UK government is going down a “dangerous and slippery slope”.
“We’ve already seen how easy drones have made it for the US to carry out covert, illegal wars – which the UK supports through the provision of intelligence and communications.
“Further moves towards autonomy will only make this worse. It’s imperative that the UK goes no further until it has a clear legal framework in place for the use of both the weapons it already has and those it wants to develop.
“Instead of being transparent, to date the government has responded with nothing but a wall of silence to questions over its current involvement in the covert drone war, and where this technology may lead in future.”
An important distinction to make is between different degrees of autonomy. The UK already operates unmanned aerial vehicles, or remotely piloted systems, which are flown by a pilot based, usually, at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Greater levels of autonomy are being developed in these machines in order to cut out the amount of work the pilot has to do and to allow them to focus on missions.
However, concerns have been raised about the possibility of fully autonomous systems which could make decisions to kill.
Autonomous killing systems – weapons the MoD says it is not developing – have been debated in the House of Commons following questions from MP Nia Griffith, vice-chair of the all party parliamentary group on weapons and the protection of civilians.
Ms Griffith raised a debate in the Commons about “lethal autonomous robotics” (LARs) in June.
She said: “Inevitably, much of the development of LARs worldwide is shrouded in secrecy, including development in the UK.
“What we do know is that weapons technology is developing at an ever-increasing pace, and it is therefore very difficult to determine how close we are to the production of LARs that are ready to be used.
“Weapons systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality are already being developed.”
We have a responsibility to the people who protect us, and must therefore reserve the right to develop and use technology as it evolves in accordance with established international law. Alistair Burt
She said that at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva the UK was the only country opposed to a moratorium on the development of such systems – something proposed as a “collective pause” to examine the legal and humanitarian issues around such systems.
Alistair Burt, the under-secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, said the UK government “does not possess fully autonomous weapon systems and has no intention of developing them”.
But Mr Burt did also leave the door open for further development of such technologies in the future.
“We cannot predict the future,” he said. “We cannot know now how this technology will develop.
“Given the challenging situations in which we expect our armed forces personnel to operate now and in the future, it would be wrong to deny them legitimate and effective capabilities that can help them to achieve their objectives as quickly and safely as possible.
“We have a responsibility to the people who protect us, and must therefore reserve the right to develop and use technology as it evolves in accordance with established international law.”
He also said that the “Ministry of Defence’s science and technology programme does not fund research into fully autonomous weapons”.
While “fully autonomous” weapons may not be being developed, the MoD does fund the Taranis programme (pictured).
Taranis is described by the RAF as a “world class Technology Demonstrator Programme that seeks to test the viability and UK’s industrial capability to design and develop an indigenous unmanned, stealthy autonomous combat aircraft”.
It is being developed under a £124.5m jointly funded Ministry of Defence and industry research programme.
A consortium of defence companies has designed the craft, led by BAE Systems and also including Rolls Royce and QinetiQ.
Ms Griffith described Taranis in the debate as “a jet-propelled combat drone prototype that can search for, identify and locate enemies autonomously, and can defend itself against enemy aircraft without human intervention.”
The RAF says any future systems that are based on the Taranis design will “at all times be under the command of highly skilled ground-based operators who could be able to remotely pilot the aircraft”.
As far as the government is concerned, therefore, the human race is not currently in danger of being enslaved by machines. But the extent to which this technology is developed, and the way in which it is used, is a debate that will continue.