The global conflict paradigm shift of the advent of autonomous loitering munitions

by Luke Hally

The utilisation of loitering munitions has become an ever foreboding element to the application of contemporary conventional conflicts. The pertinency of its assessment is called into question in their application and end-use in the field of warfare, being an innovative and ever recent technology. The ethical usage and implication within the means of war have yet to be scrutinised to the full degree of pragmatic conventional policy-making, as with the application and regulation of cluster munitions. Beyond the policy aspects of global consensus on their usage remains the specific application in warfare utilising the advances made in autonomous flight and artificial intelligence, two highly contentious military technologies in contemporary global conflict.

The history of loitering munitions is rooted within Israeli and US defence research programs in the mid-80s. It has rapidly evolved ever since with successive iterations and improvements, derived from the work of the Israeli Delilah and US AGM-136 Tacit Rainbow programs. The foundational weapons system from which contemporary examples of loitering munitions derive the bulk of their design philosophy is the IAI Harpy system, designed by Israel Aerospace Industries in the mid-80s. The dualistic design components of size and speed combine to reflect the formidability of this weapon system in conventional warfare.

This formidability is reflected in its effective ability to target and destroy radio and surface to air missile batteries through its high-speed manoeuvrability and size. These strengths allow the munitions to counter conventional radar and missile defence systems effectively. When combined with applying the advancements in AI autonomous technology, this basis will set a drastic change of precedent in defence protocols in traditional missile defence applications. A precedent which we can witness in the most recent high-intensity interstate conflicts.

These military technology applications in recent conflicts have reflected their formidability in engaging targets with impunity and evading traditional countermeasures such as missile battery defences or radar. The most rudimentary of these recent applications came in the form of the 2019 Houthi assault that used ten drones in an attack on the Saudi ARAMCO facility at Abqaiq-Khurais, crippling half of Saudi oil production capacity. Furthering the effectiveness in their application is the rudimentary design and cost of the particular model of drone used by Houthi forces. At a purported cost of USD 15,000, these Iranian produced drones have an effective range of up to 960 miles, evading most radar systems, including the missile defence system of the Patriot and other short-range missiles defending the facility. In January 2020, the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen analysed a UAV-X model, which fit the payload and damage typology inflicted upon the oil production facility. Their analyses also match the purported range capabilities, whether fired from Yemen or north of Saudi territory. According to a UN security council report on the topic, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Forces have been training their proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen in advanced drone warfare techniques. This report inevitably raises further questions about the lack of global regulation.

These technical aspects set a worrying precedent in their utilisation of warfare. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the usage of these drones was also witnessed in a conventional interstate setting. This precedence echoes the concern raised during the 2006 Lebanon War, where the Israeli Defense Forces made use of cluster munitions. This concern is the indiscriminate risk posed to collateral civilian death through the application of a particular ordinance type in combat. This aspect eventually led to the signing of the 2008 Dublin Convention on Cluster Munitions, with 111 nation-states banning their usage in warfare. In the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, both parties have accused each other of targeting civilians and being complicit in civilian deaths through loitering munition drones. Both states have used photographic evidence of drone wreckage to point to the accusation, with Armenian officials claiming civilians were targeted in the town of Berd.

The munitions themselves will change the traditional strategic conventions of warfare with their lack of established counter mechanisms. Through pervasive application in norms and strategy procedures, they have served as powerful mechanisms to achieve war gains for state actors. By assessing conventional contemporary interstate conflicts, the utilisation and reliance on autonomous drones are becoming ever more present. The application of this technology has allowed for an unprecedented paradigm shift in the defensive tactics of modern militaries. This has been notable within the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where Azeri loitering drone assaults rapidly destroyed Armenian armour and SAM sites, allowing for ground forces to push the gaps and make ground to achieve their war aims. This incorporation has led to nation-states reassessing their offensive and defensive manoeuvres, with a recent shift being witnessed within the Ukrainian crisis. The cost-efficiency of the usage of drones has led to a stark tactical advantage over conventional and costly air force attack aircraft. The pivot shift in tactics has contributed to the rapid development and incorporation of domestically produced drone technology, with Ukraine producing the ST-35 Silent Thunder as a counter to Russian artillery and armour. Alongside the recent usage of the Turkish produced Bayraktar TB2s by the Ukrainian armed forces in the Donbas region during the 2021 escalation. Within this timeframe, a Russian countermeasure of the Zala produced Lancet-3, has since been incorporated into active service.

The further incorporation and advancement of drone technology as a paradigm shift in strategic measures in interstate and intrastate conflicts will raise other ethical questions as to their impact upon the battlefield. Further developments in this space, such as defensive interceptor aerial minefield drones and facial recognising drone swarms, will bring those questions of regulation to the forefront of debate. This debate will most likely arise primarily around the ethical questions of the military application of AI and the removal of the human element of lethal force decision making. Hopefully, this debate will arrive at a semblance of international consensus on the limits of the usage of applying this technology on the battlefield to mitigate civilian casualties and use by nefarious state actors.

By Julian Herzog (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IAI_Harop#/media/File:IAI_Harop_PAS_2013_01.jpg)

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