Banning Drones? Let’s Not Get Ahead of Ourselves

By Mirko Hohmann and Joel Sandhu - 08 December 2014
Banning Drones? Let’s Not Get Ahead of Ourselves

Global Arms Control – Global Governance Futures 2025 interviews Takaaki Asano. The ‘The Global Governance Futures 2025’ programme brings together young professionals to look ahead and recommend ways to address global challenges.

MH & JS: Do you see controlling arms races in robotic arms as inherently more difficult than conventional arms? If so, why?

TA: In terms of arms control, I see no intrinsic difference between the existing conventional arms and autonomous weapons as long as the human is either “in the loop” or “on the loop,” meaning the human remains in the decision-making process of selecting and engaging specific targets. The essence of what is new about autonomous weapons is that judgments about the use of force could potentially be made by machines, not humans. In these “out of the loop” situations, we face challenges in terms of safety, legality and morality.

When we talk about fully autonomous weapons, we are basically dealing with a weapon system of the future; so far, there exist only a limited number of examples. It is thus very difficult to discuss how autonomous weapons should be regulated or restricted as we do not yet know where the technological development is taking us and how militarily significant the weapon systems are going to be. And we do not yet know whether the existing institutions and regimes could be a useful model on which to base the structure of a future regime on autonomous weapons control.

Even if major countries were to agree on restricting the development, production, and deployment of a certain class of autonomous weapons, the implementation would be difficult. Most of the element technology associated with the weapon is expected to be of dual use. Therefore, compared to the case of nuclear weapons, the degree of the proliferation of necessary technology will be high and it will be much more difficult to regulate the technological transfer.

MH & JS: What would an effective system of global governance of autonomous weapons look like? What should be the fundamental goal of such governance structures?

TA: At the moment, I think it is much more important and effective to discuss and possibly regulate the direction of research activities related to autonomous weapons as we do not yet know specifically which weapon system needs to be controlled.

However, experts on the topic have not yet even come to a complete agreement on some key terms associated with autonomous weapons. Before we start designing a new governance structure on robotic weapons, there should be an international forum where countries and stakeholders could regularly share the technological trends and best practices associated with the deployment of the weapons. Only then will discussing and agreeing on an enforceable code of conduct of some kind become a possibility. Instead of leapfrogging to a total ban of the entire class of autonomous weapons in the image of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, it probably would be realistic to aim first for a Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)-like institution. MTCR is a voluntary regime which urges its signatory countries to restrict the export of missiles and missile technology, and although it does not have the authority to veto the decision of member states decision to export, it is a starting point in order to establish a governance structure for a certain class of weapons.

MH & JS: Do you expect that the issue of how to structure the governance of autonomous weapons will become increasingly prominent amongst major think tanks, including in Japan, in the near future?

TA: I think it will take some time before the issue of a new global governance structure on autonomous weapons becomes a major policy focus. For now, the existing UAVs are tactical weapons and their military impacts are limited. The potential damage that autonomous weapons could cause is unknown and it is still too early to tell whether the weapon system could become a game-changer in international security. Many remain skeptical of and are concerned that possible technological advancement in autonomous weapons could lead to an uncontrollable arms race and disastrous conduct of war. However, we do need to also consider the possibility that the improvement in, say, sensors and artificial intelligence technologies could provide us with solutions which may, in part, prove the current governance concerns unfounded.

Technological advancement and enhanced industrial capacity associated with autonomous weapons will lead to the proliferation of the weapon system, and will therefore lead to the need for discussing internal governance structures in respective countries adopting weaponized robotics. Military doctrines and rules of engagement will be drafted and introduced in major powers, and it will become increasingly important for foreign and defense policy experts to examine political, military, economic and ethical impacts of the weapon. These efforts will establish an intellectual foundation on which to base global consideration of governance concerning autonomous robotic weapons.

MH & JS: The Japanese government recently announced the purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. Do you think this will serve Japanese security interests?

TA: Given the vast ocean area surrounding Japan, introducing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will enable Japan to conduct more effective border patrol and intelligence-gathering operations.

According to the Medium Term Defense Program, which was approved by the National Security Council and the Cabinet on December 17, 2013, the Japanese government is planning to procure its first three unarmed UAVs for surveillance purposes in the next five years. On November 21, 2014, the Japanese government officially announced that Northrop Gruman’s Global Hawk was chosen as the model to be procured, after months of deliberations. The Japanese government is considering dispatching military personnel to the US in order to train drone pilots and maintenance crew.

However, owning only three UAVs does not ensure meaningful surveillance capacity as, considering the maintenance cycle, there probably would be only one operational aircraft at any given time. The Japanese Ministry of Defense is also considering developing a smaller class of UAVs domestically to support the Global Hawk.

MH & JS: In the context of rising Sino-Japanese tensions over territorial disputes and geopolitics, is any kind of arms control agreement between China and Japan conceivable in the foreseeable future?

TA: From the Japanese perspective, a mutual arms control deal vis-à-vis China makes less sense when the Japanese Self Defense Forces possesses no strategic weapon and no power projection capability whatsoever. One of China’s major security concerns is the existence of the Japanese-US military alliance and the security network of US allies in the region. Therefore, China would not find much military merit in negotiating a bilateral arms control deal with only Japan.

At this time, a Sino-Japanese agreement on arms control is not a viable policy option for both countries as the source of the current political tension between Japan and China is not military in nature. Military capability is only one of the tools at governments’ disposal to pursue national security interests and its regulation and reduction will not automatically guarantee the ultimate solution of the dispute at hand.


Takaaki Asano is research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation and a Global Governance Futures 2025 fellow. The views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Tokyo Foundation.

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