Should we focus on autonomous weapons or the human agencies directing them?

A member of Scientists for Global Responsibility has drawn attention to a report by Peter Burt: Off the Leash: The Development of Autonomous Military Drones in the UK.

In a Guardian article*, Jamie Doward points out that though the government insists it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”, since 2015, the UK has declined to support proposals put forward at the UN to ban them.

Israel Defense summarises: ”The report maps out the agencies, laboratories, and contractors undertaking research into drones and autonomous weapon technology in support of the Ministry of Defence, examines the risks arising from the weaponization of such technologies, and assesses government policy in this area”.

“We have already seen the development of drones in Britain which have advanced autonomous capabilities, such as the Taranis stealth drone developed by BAE Systems, and the development of a truly autonomous lethal drone in the foreseeable future is now a real possibility,” Burt said.

A spokesman for the MoD said: “There is no intent within the MOD to develop weapon systems that operate entirely without human input. Our weapons will always be under human control as an absolute guarantee of oversight, authority and accountability.”

The BBC reported in November that at least 6,660 Yemeni civilians have been killed and 10,560 injured in the fighting, according to the United Nations.

It is hard to imagine fully autonomous weapons inflicting much more death and destruction than current technology under human control.

*link will not embed: go to



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Google abandons three projects which could ’cause harm’

In June, Mark Bridge reported that Google software engineers refused to work on a security feature to isolate and protect Pentagon data, because of moral concerns about the company helping the US to wage war. A dozen employees resigned in May according to Engadget and 4000 staff signed a petition against the project which was halted.

The unnamed engineers were then joined by like-minded staff In a protest against an existing contract – Project Maven – to develop drone technology, using Google’s artificial intelligence to scan military drone footage to identify people and vehicles (video here)). Although Google said that it would be used for “non-offensive purposes” only, workers feared it would be used to identify targets for drone strikes in countries such as Afghanistan, where strikes have caused civilian casualties.

Google decided to end its involvement with Project Maven in 2019 when its contract expires

Earlier in October, the Washington Examiner reported Google’s decision not to compete for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud-computing JEDI contract to improve the U.S. military’s  leverage of artificial intelligence capabilities because the project might conflict with corporate limits on the use of its technologies, which include a pledge not to build weapons or other systems intended to cause harm.

The Tech Workers Coalition, an organization of industry employees concentrated in the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle whose members have expressed concern about the ethics of certain uses of artificial intelligence, said the decision was based primarily on “sustained employee pressure.” It alleged that Google had intended to compete for the contract and had ‘courted’ military officials extensively with the hope of winning such projects.

Google has issued admirable new ethical standardsArtificial Intelligence at Google: our principles

Speaking to The Verge, an American technology news and media network, a Google representative said that had these principles been published earlier, the company would not have become involved in Project Maven which used AI to analyse surveillance footage. Although the application was described as being for “non-offensive purposes” and was therefore permitted under these guidelines, a company representative said that Google will continue to work with the military “in many other areas” but that particular project was ‘too close for comfort’.

The document makes clear that the company will not develop AI for use in weaponry and is thought to suggest that Google will ‘play it safe’ with future military contracts.




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Imran Khan: “American drone strikes in Pakistan must stop. It’s butchery, and the true horror of it is hidden from the West”


Since 2004, the US government has attacked thousands of targets in tribal areas along the Afghan border in Northwest Pakistan. It used unmanned aerial vehicles operated by the US Air Force under the operational control of the CIA’s Special Activities Division. Attacks increased substantially under Bush’s successor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.

A non-violent campaign in Pakistan against drone strikes by the Tehreek-e-Insaf party, led by Imran Khan, involved blocking the route to pressure Washington to stop targeting armed groups in the region bordering Afghanistan. NATO supply containers to and from Afghanistan via Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were stopped at border points until US drone attacks stop and a formal apology was later given to the government for the killings in Pakistan. It ended in 2014.

Imran Khan attacks those countrymen who support NATO’s war on the Taliban:

*“They have absolutely no idea. They sit in the drawing room. They read the English-language newspapers, which bear very little resemblance to what is real Pakistan. I promise you, they would be lost in our villages . . .

Khan believes the US are responsible for the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, allies of the Afghan Taliban.

“We ended up sending our army into our tribal areas at the request of the Americans. And our areas got devastated. We had, more or less, a civil-war situation there. The aid was minuscule compared to the loss of billions and billions and the blood our country spilt.”

A leaked document confirmed that 81 civilians including children died in this 2006 CIA drone strike

He adheres to the Sufi tradition of egalitarianism and the acceptance of all creeds and beliefs in society and believes: “All terrorism is politics. All this nonsense of religious terrorism. There’s no such thing as religious terrorism. It’s politics behind it. The political injustice. Perceived injustice is why people pick up arms — throughout history.”


*Direct quotations from a hostile account in the Times





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British mainstrean media downplays Britain’s role in the latest Yemeni killing

Today, the BBC reports that UN Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen will present a report to the UN Human Rights Council next month. It says that the experts believe war crimes may have been committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen.

Yemeni government forces, the Saudi-led coalition backing them, and the rebel Houthi movement have made little effort to minimise civilian casualties and there have been attacks on residential areas in which thousands have died. The warring parties are also accused of arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances and recruiting children.

But the BBC failed to mention that the Group of Experts’ report notes that coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties. The airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.

Yemenis dig graves for children in the wake of the latest air strike

Lest we forget, the remote-sounding Saudi-led coalition is supported by UK arms sales (including cluster bombs manufactured in the UK) and technical assistance.  British military personnel are complicit – deployed in the command and control centre responsible for Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, giving access to lists of targets.

The Saudi-led coalition struck last Wednesday and Thursday. Following the attacks on Wednesday, four families in northwestern Yemen, who had decided to leave their homes to avoid such danger, were in a vehicle when airstrikes hit again.

Though Britain’s mainstream media fully reported the killings of 9th August, a search finds no reference to those on the 24th.

CNN did full justice to this atrocity, recalling also that earlier this month, a Saudi-led airstrike hit a school bus carrying scores of boys in Yemen. The attack killed 51 people, including 40 children, according to the Health Ministry. CNN has established that the bomb used in that attack was a 500-pound (227 kilogram) MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin, one of the top US defence contractors.

CNN adds: “There have been growing calls in the US Congress for Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the Middle East, to do more to prevent civilian deaths in Yemen, where three years of conflict have taken a terrible toll”.

The latest news: yesterday, Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent, reports that the Pentagon has issued a warning to Saudi Arabia that it is prepared to reduce military and intelligence support for its campaign against rebels in neighbouring Yemen if the Saudis don’t demonstrate they are attempting to limit civilian deaths in airstrikes – adding “It is not clear if President Donald Trump, who views the Saudis as an essential ally, would agree to a reduction of support”.


But, like the proverbial three monkeys, the failing British government hears, sees and speaks no evil.






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For the record: BAE Chair – like Pontius Pilate – failed to clean his hands

A reader draws attention to an article in the latest CAAT magazine, which opens: “Like any company chairperson, the Chair of BAE System, Roger Carr (right), likes to use the AGM as an opportunity to celebrate the year’s achievements.”

Lizzie Dearden (Independent) summarised the dialogue: BAE Systems does not know whether its weapons are used to commit war crimes, the defence firm’s chairman has admitted while – inconsistently – praising its impeccable record on values.

Sir Roger Carr told shareholders gathered at the company’s annual general meeting they were not complicit in war crimes allegedly committed by Saudi Arabia using BAE-made planes and bombs in Yemen.

Asked whether any of its products were used in an airstrike that recently killed at least 20 people at a wedding, including the bride, he replied: “You don’t know and I don’t know.” Statistics on the appalling pain, death and destruction inflicted on Yemeni citizens and their homes may be read on the CAAT site.

Sir Roger later admitted that BAE Systems equipment “may have been used” by Saudi forces in a military intervention to crush anti-government protests in Bahrain in 2011.

Monitors allege that weapons and aircraft manufactured by BAE Systems have been deployed to kill civilians and violate international law in Yemen, but British exports to Saudi Arabia have continued, with the UK licensing more than £4.6bn worth of arms to the country since the bombing started. “We supply equipment government-to-government to enable the job to be done as seen fit,” Sir Roger said in Farnborough on Thursday. We separate ourselves from the war itself… we’re not involved in any part of prosecuting, planning or executing the war.”

UK’s Uriah Heep-like government says its heart ‘goes out’ to relatives of Yemen’s wedding airstrike victims (20 killed, 40 wounded, April 2018), but refuses to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

While being repeatedly questioned about civilian deaths by supporters of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Sir Roger claimed that BAE Systems hoped for peace in Yemen and other countries, adding: “One death of anybody is one death too many.”

But he later refused a request by the Reverend Matthew Harbage – who once turned down a trainee scheme at BAE Systems after graduating in computer science – for a minute’s silence to commemorate the people killed and injured by his company’s products, then had a protester who accused the firm of being “complicit in the murder of innocents every day” carried out by security guards.

Sir Roger defended Saudi Arabia’s intervention against Houthi rebels in Yemen by claiming the coalition bombing campaign was supported by the UN Security Council, although the body has never explicitly backed military intervention and has issued several warnings over violations of international law. He argued that Saudi Arabia needed to protect itself from Houthi missile attacks, adding that Yemen “may breed difficulty as all wars do but the greater difficulty is to let the infection spread and do nothing about it”.

Sir Roger (left) insisted that BAE Systems staff do not load weapons on to planes themselves but are involved in service, maintenance and training. “It is only at that level we draw the line, the use of that equipment is for others,” he added.

“We are not an aggressive company. We don’t conduct wars, we manufacture equipment in order to ensure that those who protect and serve us are equipped appropriately and hope that having given that equipment it will avoid others being aggressors.”

Matthew Harbage said BAE Systems could not “abdicate all responsibility” and Andrew Smith, who attended the AGM with other members of CAAT, said BAE Systems’ weapons made it an “active participant” in any atrocities committed in the conflicts where they are used:

“BAE’s arms have played a central role in the bombardment of Yemen, Carr and his colleagues cannot simply abdicate themselves of responsibility for the destruction that has been caused. If BAE is actually interested in stopping the terrible consequences of war, then the least it could do is put procedures in place to monitor the use of its weapons and ensure that they aren’t being used against civilian targets”.

He added: “The reason that BAE doesn’t know if its weapons were used in the bombing of the wedding in Yemen is because it doesn’t want to know. Its entire business model is based on perpetual war. To ask questions or to take any kind of moral stance would be to jeopardise its position as a major arms exporter.”


BAE is supplying Saudi Arabia with aircraft that are bombing Yemen. Many will agree with the understated comment: ”We at CAAT don’t think that is much if an achievement”.

In May, two Court of Appeal judges, Lord Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Flaux, granted permission for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) to appeal against a High Court judgment which allows the UK Government to continue to export arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.





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The Ministry of Defence 1: MPs fear Britain is violating national and international law?

Lizzie Dearden reported (17th July) that a two-year probe by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, chaired by Professor Michael Clarke, the former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), revealed:

• that the number of operations facilitated by the UK in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia has been growing without any public scrutiny
• growing evidence that Britain is taking on military commitments to assist allies without parliament’s authorisation
• and concluded that the current government does not consider parliamentary approval necessary when providing assistance to allies.

Their report said the inquiry has found that the support provided by the UK constitutes the provision of material assistance to a state that appears to be violating international law.

Because the use of force outside conflicts in which Britain is directly involved is not protected by combatant immunity, British servicemen and women could be prosecuted for killing civilians in drone strikes and risk becoming complicit in alleged war crimes committed by the US. The link to the report, ‘The UK’s use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners’ can be found on this page.

The British government’s claims of responsibility for only one civilian death were called “ridiculous” by Professor Clarke. He added: “They don’t look for evidence and they don’t try to look for evidence.”




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The Ministry of Defence 2: Watchkeeper drone – delays, escalating costs and test flight crashes

The BBC reported on 20th July that the MoD’s Watchkeeper programme, which aims to provide the Army with a surveillance drone, designed to provide “vital intelligence gathering and surveillance for the British Army”, has faced a series of major setbacks and delays.

As part of an £847m deal, contracts were awarded in 2005 to buy 54 UAVs to be in service by 2010, but many have remained in storage and there is a shortage of flight crews.

At least four Watchkeeper army drones  being tested in Cardigan Bay have been damaged beyond repair, with each one costing almost £6m each. The MoD said it is “too early” to say whether a fifth drone, which crashed near a school in Ceredigion last month, is salvageable. If all five are beyond repair, it brings total losses to almost £30m. Four of the drones have crashed in Aberporth so far, either on land or in the sea.

One of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles was badly damaged and broken into pieces when it crashed in a field near Penparc School on 13 June.

Ceredigion MP Ben Lake has called for the Watchkeeper’s flight path to be diverted away from the school. “There have been significant concerns,” he said. “A lot of people have raised them with me, a lot of parents in particular. “They are concerned because they are aware of a number of accidents now with these drones and are asking how safe are they, if they’re flying close to the school.”

Meanwhile costs escalate: Watchkeeper is now expected to cost at least £1.1bn, against an initial estimate of £800m.





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