The Pentagon is discussing the possibility of replacing human drone operators with computer algorithms, especially for ‘signature strikes’ where unknown targets are killed simply because they meet certain criteria. So what characteristics define an ‘enemy combatant’ and where are they outlined in law?
Drone strikes and targeted killings have become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in their ongoing war against terrorists. But what impact is this technology having, not only on those who are the targets (both intended and unintended), but on the way we are likely to wage war in the future?
John Sifton is the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, and says that while drones are currently controlled remotely by trained military personnel, there are already fears that the roving killing machines could be automated in the future. ‘One of the biggest concerns human rights groups have right now is the notion of a signature strike,’ he says. ‘[This is] the notion that you could make a decision about a target based on its appearance. Say—this man has a Kalashnikov, he’s walking on the side of the road, he is near a military base. He’s a combatant, let’s kill him. That decision is made by a human right now, but the notion that you could write an algorithm for that and then program it into a drone… sounds science fiction but is in fact what the Pentagon is already thinking about. There are already discussions about this, autonomous weapons systems.’‘That is to human rights groups the most terrifying spectre that is currently presented by the drones.’
Sarah Knuckey is the director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University Law School and an advisor to the UN. She says the way that drones are used to conduct warfare is stretching the limits of previous international conventions and is likely to require new rules of engagement to be drawn up…The rules of warfare built up after World War II to protect civilians are already hopelessly outdated, she says. The notion of border sovereignty has already been trashed by years of drone strikes, which she estimates have targeted upwards of 3,000 individuals, with reports of between 400 and 800 civilian casualties.
Excerpt from Annabelle Quince, Future of drone strikes could see execution by algorithm, May 21, 2013