Combat Drones: Urgently Create Rules to Prevent Abuse

Drones, which can be operated away from a battlefield, could bring about the casual use of force, as their operations allow the attacking side not to factor in its own human casualties. International rules must be created urgently.

In Ukraine, where fierce battles are continuing, both Russia and Ukraine have used drones not only for reconnaissance but also for attacks. The Russian military has utilized self-destructing drones to destroy infrastructure and other facilities in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian military has sunk Russian naval vessels with unmanned surface vehicles.

Drones have also been used in fighting between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, killing senior Hamas members.

The growing use of drones for military purposes appears to stem from their lower cost compared with fighter jets and missiles, as well as their ability to operate continuously for long periods of time.

Japan has also drawn up plans in its Defense Buildup Program, which was devised in late 2022, to invest a total of ¥1 trillion for the introduction of drones over the five years from fiscal 2023 to fiscal 2027. The move is aimed at compensating for a shortage of Self-Defense Forces personnel by replacing manned vehicles with drones.

China aims to establish technology to launch so-called saturation attacks by flying numerous small drones like a swarm. The Japanese Defense Ministry has been developing laser equipment that will shoot down multiple drones at once. The nation’s defense system should also be strengthened.

The use of drones has continued to expand, but drone attacks pose ethical problems.

As attackers operate drones through monitor screens, they may come to feel as if they are playing a game. That could numb their hesitation to take a human life.

Particularly due to the advance of artificial intelligence (AI), there is a possibility that Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), in which AI sets targets and carries out attacks without human judgment, will be put to practical use.

In recent years, countries such as the United States, China and Russia have been considering international rules related to LAWS, but there are conflicting views between nations that seek strict regulations and others that want to minimize rules. Late last year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to regulate LAWS.

The Japanese government has expressed its stance not to develop LAWS and is aiming to first devise a non-legally binding code of conduct.

Under international humanitarian law, the use of force during a war is confined to military targets and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Regarding the use of drones as well, countries need to reaffirm these regulations in line with such principles as not targeting civilians.

It goes without saying that AI must not be allowed to make decisions that will take human lives. The Japanese government should lead efforts to create strict, effective rules.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 3, 2024)