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DISCUSSION PAPER| MARCH 2019
Swarms
Discussion paper for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)
Geneva, March 2019
Article 36 is a UK-based not-for-profit organisation working to promote public scrutiny over the development and use of weapons.*
www.article36.org info@article36.org @Article36
On 28 March 2019, the UK Government announced the awarding of 2.5 million GBP for the development of ‘swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences’.1 Such swarms exhibit autonomous behaviour and are pursued by several states, including to attack targets. The prospect of ‘essentially unlimited numbers’ of weaponized mini-drones has raised fears of ‘scalable weapons of mass de- struction’.2 The UK’s announcement thus lent a sense of renewed urgency to ongoing deliberations on ‘lethal autonomous weapons systems’ in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conven- tional Weapons (CCW), especially as the UK continues to oppose legal restrictions on autonomous weapons in that forum.3
Inspired by swarms of insects, flocks of birds and shoals of fish, ‘swarming’ as a military tactic can be traced back centuries.4 More recently, technological advances have enabled the pursuit of swarms in the form of networked, mobile, autonomous munitions or robots (including unmanned naval, ground or aerial vehicles (UAVs), also called ‘drones’). Such swarms, composed of dozens, hundreds or thousands of potentially very small units could find applications in policing, counter-piracy, port security and similar operations.5 But this bulletin focuses on their potential applications in a military context, where swarms could fulfil a range of missions, in offensive, defensive and supporting roles.6
Defence analysts see the benefits of swarms mainly in their capacity to overwhelm enemy capabilities by their sheer numbers, as well as in their functioning as coordinated, distributed, autonomous systems. Proponents argue that they would ‘bring greater mass, coordination, intelligence and speed to the battlefield’.7 To realize this vision of swarm warfare, they propose new paradigms of military organiza- tion and command and control. Among other issues, swarms thus raise questions about the quality of human control over the use of weapons and their effects – questions that intersect with the ongoing debates on autonomous weapons and on armed drones.
This bulletin briefly summarizes reported military advances in swarm- ing technologies as well as recent policy commentary on the topic. It flags potential risks from the perspective of international and human security and disarmament, and suggests some areas of concern. Some of these are relevant to the CCW, a ‘hybrid treaty’ that sits at the intersection of arms control, disarmament and humanitarian law:8
x Swarms implicated in the detection, selection and attack of targets raise acute questions about human control over the use
of force, as well as pressing legal, ethical, security and other con- cerns at the centre of the debate on ‘lethal autonomous weapons’. The emergent behaviour of swarms and the proposition that a single operator could control a potentially large swarm heightens these concerns.
x Swarms risk entrenching problems posed by the use of armed drones in present practice, including the expansion of armed force, patterns of humanitarian harm and challenges to the inter- national rule of law.
x Swarms could take different forms that may not fit well into exist- ing legal categories, creating uncertainty about the legal ramifi- cations of their use. To prevent swarm development from eroding long-standing legal protections, states must reaffirm the central values enshrined in existing law and actively seek to clarify the legal and ethical boundaries in swarm development: agreed legal
* This paper was written by Maya Brehm and Anna de Courcy Wheeler.
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