Defence - Issue 31 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

Robot remorse


A senior academic in the US has developed a prototype “ethical adaptor” software application that could make machines feel guilt in an attempt to reduce the potential for collateral damage caused by air-strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other robots.

In essence, the software concept drawn up by Dr Ronald Arkin, the associate dean for ­research at Georgia Institute of Techno- logy’s School of Interactive Computing, provides the UAV with a tool to understand the effects of its own weapons.

It is designed to work by running a rapid simulation to estimate the effect of its weapons on a given target before firing and then correlating that with an after-action report transmitted by troops or unattended ground sensors in the vicinity. If the weapons caused more collateral damage than the simulation expected, the UAV would guilt-trip itself into placing a ban on using similar weapons on comparable targets for the duration of that mission.

It remains to be seen whether service officials would be comfortable deploying a system that refuses to fire its weapons. “A manual override system exists,” says Dr Arkin. “But that would mean the explicit assumption of responsibility by the operator for any further use of the system.”

Damage limitation:
  1. Crime prevention: NATO has set up a series of 24-hour Time-Sensitive Targeting co-ordination cells to check for possible collateral damage from attacks. They advise as to whether there is a risk of criminal proceedings resulting from strikes.

  2. Dart attack: The US Marines are using a new flechette, the first since Vietnam. The dart-like missiles can shred foliage and vehicles, but do not explode, causing less damage to surroundings.

  3. Cement bombs: The UK’s Royal Air Force took an unusual approach to limiting collateral damage in 2003 when its Tornados in Iraq began carrying bombs filled with concrete rather than explosives. They proved adept at knocking down buildings.

It’s plane to see


Russia is moving to upgrade its fleet of strategic bombers. A new bomber will be built by Tupolev by 2025 (2030 at the latest), replacing the supersonic Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjacks and Tu-22M3 Backfires. The latter were at the heart of many NATO commanders’ nightmares during the Cold War, but singularly failed to distinguish themselves during Russia’s fight with Georgia in 2008.

Sub plot

Vietnam [MARINE]

Vietnam has signalled its intention to become a regional maritime player by signing a $1.8bn (€1.3bn) contract with Russia for six Kilo-class submarines, the first of which could arrive by the end of this year.

With crucial sea lanes crisscrossing local waters, and several resource-rich areas still under dispute in the South China Sea, countries around Southeast Asia are investing heavily in their naval capabilities to safeguard their national interests.

Malaysia commissioned its first two submarines – French and Spanish-built Scorpènes – in 2009, Singapore recently got two ex-Swedish Navy boats, and Indonesia seeks to double its fleet by adding two modern Russian or South Korean subs.

Vietnam’s move to boost its fleet (it has two very old subs) does not reflect growing rivalry between Southeast Asian states so much as Hanoi’s determination “to provide a credible if relatively small deterrent to Chinese naval intervention”, according to Tim Huxley, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies – Asia.

The Vietnamese and Chinese navies have clashed before in the waters off Vietnam, with China seizing the Paracel Islands chain from Vietnamese control in the 1970s; this and other territorial disputes still sour their relations. But Vietnam’s submariners face competition: China’s fleet includes 12 Kilo-class boats.

Path breakers


Peru has embarked on a three-year programme worth in the region of $850m (€585m) to upgrade the capabilities of its special forces to counter a resurgence of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in the Ayacucho Valley.

The plan is to re-train a dedicated counter-insurgency brigade and re-equip it to tackle the Shining Path, which has formed alliances with Colombian drug cartels in the last 18 months and shot down three Peruvian Mi-17 Hip helicopters in 2009. The special forces air support fleet of Mi-17s and Mi-24 Hinds is to be upgraded with more firepower and thermal viewing equipment.

Nowhere to hide


NATO is rolling out its version of a CCTV system to pick up on Taliban activity and civilians acting suspiciously in Afghanistan. The new networked airborne surveillance system, developed by Lockheed Martin, will collate video footage gathered by multiple NATO aircraft.

Share on:






Go back: Contents



sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Big Interview