Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Killer Robotic Insects: Protection of Civilians or Battle against Morality?

Source: Wired

Source: Wired

by Nina Levarska

Even though it might sound like a chapter from a science fiction book, it seems that the military future rests on the robotic birds and insects. The US Air Force is developing micro unmanned vehicles (MAVs), which can look like bees, spiders or small birds and are capable of hovering, crawling, and striking their targets with a clinical precision. According to the animated promotional video from the Air Force, ‘(i)ndividual MAVs may perform direct attack missions and can be equipped with incapacitating chemicals, combustible payloads or even explosives for precision targeting capability.’[1] These mini drones will collect surveillance data and share it with each other as they fly in swarms. The Air Force says that ‘(d)ata will be communicated among the MAVs to enable real time, reliable decision-making and to provide an advanced overall picture for other platforms or operators.’[2] Moreover, some authors believe that the aim behind the development of this technology is to minimize collateral damage, which would be significantly reduced due to the small size of the drones and the munitions.[3]

Overall it seems that this is another attempt by the U.S. to wage “humane” wars, in which only “evildoers” are eliminated and civilian lives are preserved. Promotion of the protection of civilians by deploying precision targeting might, however, overshadow the fact that the act of targeting killing is legally questionable. This is because the targeted individual can be considered to be either a lawful enemy combatant in wartime or an international criminal (and therefore, civilian). This is dependant on whether any attack is seen to take place within or outside a warzone. In the first case, the law is uncertain because targeted killing is not prohibited under the Hague regulations, but killing a specific combatant instead of focusing on all enemy combatants in general might be contrary to the customary international law.[4] On the other hand, in the latter case, targeted killing outside the declared warzone without prior approval of the neutral country would be illegal as in such situations the targeted individuals would hold civilian status. Instead of being assassinated, these persons should be arrested and dealt with in a conventional way because they are entitled to a fair trial.[5]

Needless to say, that although it appears to be clear under international law that targeting criminals outside warzones is illegal, such incidents happen quite frequently. Examples of such a scenario often take place in Yemen, where in 2001, a CIA Predator drone targeted a vehicle and killed six passengers. The suspected Al-Qaeda member Ahmed Hijazi and the militant Sunuan al-Harathi were allegedly among the victims of the attack. In 2011, an infamous killing of an American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son also took place in this neutral country. These examples portray how even such a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law such as civilian immunity can be easily disregarded in the name of the Global War on Terror.

Therefore, it remains questionable what the real motive behind the development of high-tech MAVs is. Even though it is indisputable that the accuracy of the weapon used reduces collateral damage, both the targets and the bystenders can be civilian. For this reason, the question arises as to what extent new military technological inventions aim to protect civilians and to what extent they serve as a tool to gain public support for military interventions through making war look more humane.

[1] Michael Zennie, “Death from a swarm of tiny drones: U.S. Air Force releases terrifying video of tiny flybots that can hover, stalk and even kill targets”, Mail Online, 20 February 2013, (accessed 7 October 2013).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Spencer Ackerman, “Army Wants Tiny Suicidal Drone to Kill From 6 Miles Away”, Wired, 9 October 2012, (accessed 7 October 2013).

[4] Armin Krishnan, “Killer Robots: Legality and Ethicality of Autonomous Weapons”, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009, 101.

[5] Ibid., 102.


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