Vatican: Swarms of ‘kamikaze’ mini-drones pose threat to civilians

The Uavtek Nano Drone bug used by the British Army The Uavtek Nano Drone bug used by the British Army. | Uavtek via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Vatican said this week that the potential use of “swarms of ‘kamikaze’ mini-drones” could pose a threat to civilians.

An Aug. 3 statement by the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, said that the devices could attack the wrong target in urban settings.

“A specific potential challenge that this delegation wishes to underline relates to the possibility of the use of swarms of ‘kamikaze’ mini-drones, that is, swarms of weapon systems endowed with autonomous capabilities,” it said, alluding to Japanese kamikaze pilots who launched suicide attacks in World War II.

“The use of swarms in urban areas could lead to high risks for civilians. If functioning without any direct human supervision, such systems could make mistakes in identifying the intended targets due to some unidentified ‘bias’ induced by their ‘self-learning capabilities’ developed from a limited set of data samples.”

The statement continued: “The concept of a swarm of autonomous weapons further aggravates this risk since the stochastic [random] nature of the swarm could lead to excessive injuries and indiscriminate effects, in stark contradiction with IHL [international humanitarian law].”

The Vatican highlighted the danger during a session of the 2021 Group of Governmental Experts on emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The group is discussing LAWS in the context of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which bans arms that cause unnecessary suffering or affect civilians indiscriminately.

Military analysts have focused on the ethical problems presented by drone swarms in recent years.

In a 2020 paper for the U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Deterrence Studies, Zachary Kallenborn stressed the dangers posed by a subset of drone swarms known as “armed, fully autonomous drone swarms” (AFADS).

Kallenborn, an expert in unmanned systems and weapons of mass destruction (WMD), wrote: “Drone swarms, as a class, should not be considered WMD. However, a subset of drones, AFADS, should be. Drone swarms are capable of inflicting mass harm and AFADS are likely to be inherently indiscriminate for the foreseeable future.”

He urged the U.S. government to develop “ethical targeting systems” that distinguish between civilians and military forces.

Forbes magazine reported in June that the U.S. Army is developing a system which, it said, “looks like a real-world embodiment of AFADS.”

The Cluster UAS Smart Munition for Missile Deployment would involve the firing of a missile with a payload consisting of mini-drones that would spread out and identify targets such as vehicles, large-caliber guns, and ammunition storage sites, and then destroy them using armor-piercing munitions.

In its submission, the Holy See stressed the unpredictability of LAWS, which can be “equipped with self-learning or self-programmable capabilities.”

It also noted a growing trend among “employees and entrepreneurs” of objecting on ethical grounds to projects focused on “the weaponization of artificial intelligence.”

It said that these concerns pointed to “the far-reaching implications and urgency of our discussion.”

The Holy See made two further interventions at the Group of Governmental Experts meeting, which is taking place on Aug. 3-13.

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In an Aug. 4 statement, it called for a “cautious and preventative approach” to the development of LAWS to avoid an “irreversible alteration of the nature of warfare,” which, it said, would “compel all states to reassess their military capabilities.”

The Holy See said it was critical to maintain “meaningful human control over weapon systems.”

“The unique human capacity for moral judgment and ethical decision-making is more than a complex collection of algorithms, and such a capacity cannot be replaced by, or programmed into, a machine,” it said.

In another statement the following day, the Vatican delegation noted that LAWS raised “potential and serious implications for peace and stability.”

It welcomed moves by other parties to “emphasize the central role of ethics and the importance of the reference to the human person and to humanity in the discussion.”

“This delegation believes that to prevent an arms race and the increase of inequalities and instability, it is an imperative duty to act urgently,” the Holy See said.

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