A human target is shot down for the first time by a drone


“Unidentified violent object.” In three words, the French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou – author of Drone Theory, (Drone Theory) – manages to define the drone, a new weapon of war. At first glance, this technological innovation could be used to reduce loss of life.

However, a UN panel of experts has brought to light a disturbing event, in which a drone allegedly “shot down a human target” in Libya in March 2020. The problem is that the drone was not controlled by any human at all. the time. .

The autonomy of these technological gems raises many questions and foreshadows the advent of a new type of warfare. Erick Sourna Loumtouang Рprincipal researcher at the National Center for Education, a research institution under the Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation in Yaound̩, Cameroon Рanswers some of our questions.

According to a report by the UN Group of Experts on Libya dated March 8, 2021, an armed Libyan drone “shot down a human target” without receiving an order in March 2020. Does this open a new story page in the history of war?

Erick Sourna Loumtouang: The situation reported by the UN Group of Experts on Libya reaffirms a security trend that has appeared since the end of the Cold War, that of robotization and the automation of war. This revolution in military affairs has seen the emergence and increasing proliferation of machines in theaters of armed conflict.

In the context of the war on terrorism, several regions of the world have become testing grounds where new methods and knowledge on violence are implemented and updated.

Until now, armed unmanned vehicles (drones and other robots) have been used in semi-autonomous mode, almost always with human assistance. The report of the UN expert groups on Libya shows that a step has been taken. To my knowledge, this is the first time that a drone has had the power to select and eliminate human targets in real life. The era of computational and algorithmic sovereignty opens and leads to ethical drifts. For example, an algorithm will now be responsible for someone’s death.

Although fully automated drones have been around for several years in the UK, US and Turkey, the Libyan theater is the only recorded case in which a human was killed by an auto-automated machine. However, it is entirely possible that drones have been tested in other theaters of operations, such as Syria and Iraq. This is proof that the massive proliferation of drone technologies, due to global competition, will undoubtedly lead to a tenfold increase in violence and obvious ethical drifts.

The drone mentioned in the report is the Turkish army’s Kargu 2, which has also been used against the Islamic State in Syria and along Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Iran, where Ankara is fighting the PKK. .

The United States and France have recently shown their willingness to leave African theaters of conflict. Will drones be a way for these powers to maintain a certain form of presence without mobilizing human resources on the African continent?

The deployment of these two great powers on African soil is an ancient fact which oscillates between visibility and invisibility. The attack on the World Trade Center marked a strategic turning point, as it pushed the limits of American sovereignty on a global scale and marked the inauguration of a new modus operandi. The gendarmes of the world, in an attempt to “occupy without invading”, have created a network of drone bases which, since 2001, has grown from 13 to 27 bases listed in 2019.

Operationally, the superpower has moved from detentions without trial to executions without trial. Former President Obama mainly used killer drones to combat jihadist groups in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa as he felt it was best to neutralize terrorists in their sanctuary before they had a chance. attack civilians.

In the face of widespread protests against US drone strikes in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, President Trump, his successor, has pledged to end these eternal wars. The Republican’s record clearly shows that he has launched more drone strikes than his predecessor. This is due to an increase in US drone bases.

France also has a number of drone bases in the country. It provided troops for Operation Barkhane, dedicated to the liberation of northern Mali which fell into the hands of the jihadists. In this hostile zone, drones are deployed for reconnaissance, intelligence and to carry out airstrikes on jihadist targets.

While both powers have said they intend to leave African theaters, neither has – so far – given details on when and how they will leave.

France has announced that it is suspending joint operations with the Malian army following the ruling junta’s coup, but it continues to engage its troops in the fight against terrorism by using drones to neutralize armed groups. [Ed. note: France has since agreed to rejoin operations with Malian forces]

The United States also continues to use drones in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin and Somalia, where several jihadist groups are deployed. As the UAV system does not require a strong presence of troops on the ground, it is certain that France and the United States, even once they have left, will continue to use their unmanned aircraft in these areas, either for individual operations or in cooperation with local partners. .

How could the use of these autonomous armed drones change African armed conflicts?

From the way they are used to fight terrorism in the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Horn of Africa, I would say drones have modernized imperial practices. The great powers carry out military surveillance and strike operations in Africa, sometimes without the approval of parliaments, authorities and populations. This lack of transparency does not prevent abuses, especially those perpetrated against civilians.

To date, only a few armies on the continent use drones and are therefore dependent on data and intelligence provided by Western armies. This increases the strategic dependence of African countries on Western armies.

While the United States and the United Kingdom, the major Western drone makers, have so far imposed restrictions on the marketing of their aircraft, the proliferation of drone technologies has made it easier to access these devices via other countries like China, Russia, Turkey and India.

Nigeria, for example, uses Chinese killer drones to fight Boko Haram and may well use these unmanned planes for law enforcement purposes. This could mean a real setback for democracy. Boko Haram is also believed to be using tactical mini-drones in the Lake Chad Basin.

If terrorist groups use more sophisticated planes to carry out suicide attacks, as the Islamic State organization is already doing, it could lead to increased civilian casualties on the continent.

It is clear that in the context of the fight against terrorism, where it is not always possible to send troops to certain areas, drones will become widespread. In Libya, this drone war has raised the question of whether the government has succeeded in controlling this tense political situation since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

The unprecedented use of autonomous drones reveals a lack of responsibility in their use. There is no guarantee that the use of these devices will protect against possible errors in the selection of the target. The problem with drones is that they are susceptible to attack and misuse, just like any other computer system. The increasing use of stand-alone devices also raises the issue of liability.

When an autonomous drone is used, who is responsible for a homicide? Is it the software developer or the state or non-state actor who uses the equipment? The proliferation of drones in Africa will undoubtedly open ethical debates on assassinations, and on the regulation of such practices by international law and the law of war.

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