- Military and consumer drones have evolved quickly in the post-9/11 era, as technology rapidly advances and brings new capabilities online.
- The utility of killer drone swarms, in which large groups of drones cooperate to hunt and kill people, makes their development likely.
- The ability to kill on a large scale, coupled with the inability of a drone swarm to tell between combatants and noncombatants, means such weapons should be classified as weapons of mass destruction, with heavy penalties on their use.
Swarms of autonomous kamikaze drones, capable of hunting down and killing people, should be considered weapons of mass destruction. That’s the conclusion of an article at West Point’s Modern War Institute blog, which argues such drones should be treated like other WMDs, including nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
These swarms, which are autonomous, work in groups, and carry lethal payloads, could be unleashed against armies or cities, to equally deadly effect.
Several factors are driving the idea of such swarms. Advances in artificial intelligence and communications will eventually allow drones to fly and accomplish missions cooperatively. Miniaturized sensors and payloads will enable drones to detect, track, and engage individual people, delivering tiny, but lethal explosive charges against the human body, bypassing helmets and body armor.
At the same time, modern mass production can churn out millions of technologically complex consumer products, like the iPhone, on a daily basis.
All of this could very well combine to make swarms of killer drones a reality. The combination of low-manpower requirements and high efficiency would make them an attractive proposition for military forces worldwide. No matter how horrific, the promise of a military advantage on the battlefield means that some government, at some point, will likely pursue their development.
If these weapons pass into the hands of civilians, much like shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and other types of military weapons, they could cause harm on an unprecedented scale.
Kallenborn says if thousands of armed, fully autonomous drone swarms can kill thousands of people, that’s very much within WMD territory. Legally, he says, killer swarms fit the definition of WMDs due to their scalability. One drone might kill one person, but thousands of drones could kill thousands.
Kallenborn also asserts that drones may not ever be able to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, resulting in soldiers, wounded soldiers who are no longer combatants, and civilians killed alike with impunity.
How do we prevent slaughterbots from becoming a reality? We treat them as WMDs, which means taking a page from the counter-WMD playbook.
This includes the U.S. government taking a strong stand against their deployment, backing efforts to prevent their development and proliferation, and eventually deciding whether or not their use would constitute a “red line” that prompts military action. It’s important, Kallenborn argues, to get ahead of the technology and establish norms and penalties before killer drone swarms are released into the wild.