X-47 Drone Testing Sparks Ethical Warfare Debate

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Northrop Grumman's X-47B drone may represent "a major qualitative change in the conduct of hostilities" according to the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which reports to the Geneva Conventions. The X-47B is entering tests to see it land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, autonomously -- without in-cockpit or remote-pilot input. That sort of capability is only a precursor to what's coming. According to an Air Force report (PDF), the improvements in drone technology will eventually give drones the capacity to make life-or-death decisions while engaged in battle. And "increasingly humans will no longer be 'in the loop' but rather 'on the loop.'" And that, according to ICRC president Jacob Kellenberger, may challenge international law.

According to Kellenberger, "the capacity to discriminate" in warfare is a requirement of international humanitarian law. In the case of advanced drones, that capacity will "depend entirely on the quality and variety of sensors and programming" employed as opposed to individuals, Kellenberger says. The ICRC is addressing the issue as it relates to the Geneva Conventions. Drones now account for 7,500 aircraft in the military and one-third of all military aircraft today, the L.A. Times reported Thursday. Drone platforms represent potential cost and combat benefits. There is currently no plan to allow the X-47B to autonomously make decisions about killing enemy combatants. But that may change. In the Air Force's report (PDF), the Air Force states that "authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions."