Article in Law / International / Law of War & Self-Defense
The automated battlefield is still a bit in the future, but it is well on the way. Dramatic advances in robotics and unmanned vehicles (ground and air), for example, are it bringing ever closer.
<p>On 14 October 1969, General William C</p>

Assassination by drone

On 30 September 2011, in northern Yemen's al-Jawf province, two Hellfire missiles, fired from two unmanned Predator drones at a vehicle, assassinated the 40-year-old American-born jihadist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, regarded by western governments as the most dangerous al-Qaeda leader, the man most likely to make a successful attack in the west. Awlaki was born in New Mexico, US.

The death of Awlaki, who was a leader of ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ one of the most effective al-Qaeda group, which operates out of Yemen, is the biggest set-back for al-Qaeda since its founder, Osama bin Laden, was killed by American Special Forcers in Pakistan in May 2011. President Barack Obama said that Awlaki’s death is “further proof that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will have no safe haven anywhere in the world”.

The drone attack in the Yemen, carried out by the US Joint Special Operations Command under the direction of the CIA, also killed three other suspected al-Qaeda members who were travelling with Awlaki. One of them was 25-year-old Samir Khan, American citizen from North Carolina.

The drone attack also killed 25-year-old Samir Khan, also American born, who was editor of al-Qaeda's English-language web magazine, Inspire, and Islam’s best–known propagandist.

The assassination of Awlaki, and the others, once again raises ethical and legal questions about the US policy of assassinating people it believes to be terrorists wherever they are found. The US argues that it has the right to kill people in foreign countries as part of an ‘armed conflict’ with al-Qaeda. Some eminent international lawyers say, however, that there is no basis in international law for such assassinations.

Weapons for automated warfare

Unmanned drones are examples of robotic weapons. According to a recent article in the science journal Nature, entitled “A world of killer apps” (2), the author P. W. Singer writes: “Over the past ten years, the United States and 45 other nations have gone from looking at robots as mere science fiction to using them in their military forces. For example, the US military used only a handful of unmanned aerial systems in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but now has more than 7,000 unmanned aerial systems and 12,000 unmanned ground systems in its inventory. As a sign of things to come, the US Air Force now trains more unmanned systems operators than fighter and bomber pilots combined.”

The military use of robots has, Singer explains, consequences beyond the saving of pilots’ lives. “US President Barack Obama recently argued that he did not need congressional approval for military operations in Libya because they were carried out by unmanned aerial systems such as the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. In Pakistan, US unmanned systems have made more than 250 strikes against suspected terrorists since 2004. Notably, these strikes were carried out by CIA drones rather than military ones, meaning even less oversight”.

The MQ-1 Predator is a medium-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used by the United States Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Predator carries cameras and other sensors and two Hellfire missiles or other munitions. Used since 1995, it has seen combat over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. The propellor-driven aircraft can fly up to 400 nautical miles (740 kilometers) to a target, loiter overhead for 14 hours, and then return to its base.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a bigger and more capable UAV than the earlier Predator. Its turboprop engine is much more powerful than the Predator's so that it carry 15 times more ordnance and cruise at three times the speed of the Predator. The Reaper has been developed into a UAV called the Avenger. Powered by a turbofan engine, the Avenger’s first flight took place on 4 April 2009.

The development of more powerful and versatile unmanned aircraft for autonomist combat roles is underway. They will be among the weapons used in a foreseeable automated battlefield.

The automated battlefield

The automated battlefield is not a new concept. It was described in some detail by General William C. Westmoreland, then the US Army’s Chief of Staff, in a speech he gave to the Association of the US Army on 14 October 1969.

The General said: “On the battlefield of the future enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data-links, computer-assisted intelligence evaluation and automated fire control. With first-round kill probabilities approaching certainty, and with surveillance devices that can continuously track the enemy, the need for large forces to fix the opposition physically will be less important”.

“I see battlefields”, the General went on, “that are under 24-hour real or near-real time surveillance of all types. I see battlefields on which we can destroy anything we locate through instant communications and almost instantaneous application of highly lethal firepower” (1).

Westmoreland’s vision of an automated conventional battle is one which takes place in an area of territory from which all people have been evacuated. An attacker invades the area with robot-driven vehicles. The other side defends it with automated missiles of high accuracy. The battle occurs with no direct human involvement. The soldiers are robots. Any human involvement is remote; the battlefield is too lethal for humans.

The automated battlefield is still some way away but it is well on the way. Dramatic advances in robotics and unmanned vehicles (ground and air), for example, are it bringing ever closer.

Warfare is being automated for a number of reasons. A combination of military, industrial and bureaucratic pressures ensures that all technological advances are, sooner or later, used for military purposes. The momentum of technology will lead to the increasing automation of warfare, first in the developed countries (the USA, Russia and the NATO countries) and then to some countries in the Third World. The global arms trade will encourage this spread.

Manpower shortage and the increasing lethality of weapon systems are other reasons for the development of the automated battlefield. As time goes and weapon systems become more complex those in the armed forces must have more sophisticated skills. More time and resources are, therefore, being devoted to military training and military personnel become too valuable to lose in significant numbers. Mass-produced robots are cheaper and more expendable than humans.

The automation of warfare inevitably raises a number of basic questions – ethical, legal, military, economic and political. How would victory be defined in an automated battle? Is it necessary for blood to be spilled in war? If war becomes a battle between unmanned vehicles and robots, on one side, and automated missiles on the other, why not simply decide the issue by having the generals play computer games? Will automated warfare eventually make conventional war incredible?

Victory in an automated battle may well go to the side that can keep up the battle for the longest time. Weapons will be used up at a very fast rate. A high premium will be placed on establishing the large-scale production of unmanned vehicles, robots, smart missiles and the other components of the automated battlefield.

The industrial capacity to produce these weapons and weapon systems will have to be set up long before the war began. The more automated warfare becomes the more militarised the economy and society become. The militarisation of society is the price to be paid for the ability to fight and win an automated war.

This trend is demonstrated by the case of Israel, which uses very advanced technologies to maintain a high-quality technological arsenal. The price it pays for this is the need to keep its economy permanently on a war footing and all the disadvantages that go with a militarised society.

The world’s leading country in automation of warfare is the USA. This reflects the basic American belief that, provided enough money is invested in scientific research, the nature of their society, particularly its openness, is such as to encourage innovation. The US certainly invests heavily in its military. In 2010, its military expenditure was about $698 billion, 43 per cent of the world total (which amounted to about $1,630 billion.

America’s leading position in automated warfare hasn’t come cheaply. The Pentagon spends about $12 billion a year on science and technology, nearly double the amount spent by the US National Science Foundation.

Automated weapons favour defence rather than offence

What effect will these developments have on military doctrines? Foreseeable automated weapon systems favour defence over offence. Defence is becoming increasingly cost-effective in that it is much cheaper to destroy weapon systems like main battle tanks, long-range combat aircraft and large warships than to buy and deploy them.

Now that governments are committed to cut spending, including defence budgets, will military doctrines increasingly emphasise defence rather than offence? Will countries move to, for example, a defensive conventional deterrent? Only time will tell.


1. Frank Barnaby, The Automated Battlefield: New Technology in Modern Warfare, p.1, Oxford University Press, 1987.

2. P.W.Singer, A world of killer apps, Nature Vol.477, p.399, 22 September 2011.

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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