In March 2020, as COVID-19 locked down the world, what may have been the first autonomous drone attacks in history were taking place on a largely unwatched battlefield in Libya.
According to a UN report published in March this year, Libyan forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) used Turkish-made STM Kargu-2 drones to hunt down units loyal to former Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
The report – prepared by independent experts for a UN panel on Libya arms sanctions breaches – stated that the four-rotor drones were programmed in “autonomous mode” to attack fleeing logistics convoys and other vehicles automatically, without further human intervention.
If correct, that would represent the first documented such incident on a battlefield – a development that has long been predicted and feared by military and human rights experts alike. While drones have been a feature of the battlefield for years – from strikes by large US unmanned aerial vehicles to much smaller devices operated by militant groups such as Islamic State – they have still required a human being to operate the “kill switch”.
That such a step may have taken place unheralded and largely unnoticed, however, should not be a surprise. The last two decades have seen a mass proliferation, downsizing and democratisation of technology once the preserve of the most powerful states. Innovation is now much cheaper, and those willing to bend rules can find advantage.
No country has exploited this dynamic more than Turkey, its cheap and effective “loitering” kamikaze drones a perfect match for the foreign policy of President Tayyip Erdogan.
As US and Western interest in the Middle East falters, Turkey has been quietly increasing its involvement in conflicts in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and West Africa. That presence is often simultaneously diplomatic, commercial and military – with shipments of Turkish weapons and technology often a key part of the deal.
Turkey has also become a prime mover in the larger UAV market, selling its Bayraktar TB2 drones in countries including Qatar, Tunisia and Ukraine – each deal also furthering Turkish geopolitical connections and interests. The TB2 was also used by Turkish-backed forces in Libya, one of several weapons systems apparently shipped in contravention of a UN arms embargo.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year, Turkish support was central to Azerbaijan’s battlefield success – with Turkish drones loitering over the battlefield to target Armenian tanks with brutal effect.
Footage of these attacks was used extensively by Azerbaijan as information warfare, disseminated over social media and shown on large screens in public areas.
Not everyone is glad to see Turkey’s UAV export success. In April, Canada blocked the export of potential drone components to Turkey at the same time as other Western sanctions following Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles. Canada’s Foreign Affairs department said the ban was in part due to evidence that Canadian drone components had been used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Whether those drones were autonomously operated remains unclear – but it is at least a possibility. STM, the Turkish firm that manufactures the drones, states in a YouTube video that the Kargu drone can select targets autonomously with a “fire and forget” mode, implying that it can be launched to loiter looking for a target and then engage automatically.
‘FIRE AND FORGET’
The video shows the quadrocopter taking off and hovering before identifying and targeting a vehicle. While the video shows a deliberate human decision to engage, the company headings say it can “fire and forget”.
Similar drones – although not necessarily autonomous – are also made by Israel, and played a significant role in the most recent Gaza conflict as well is being exported to Azerbaijan and used in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Tracking such developments is difficult, particularly during the COVID-19 era, when international media and observers are less likely to be present. Small drones are increasingly a feature of war in the Mideast, used by Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and all sides in Syria.
The use of “fire and forget” weapons is itself, of course, not new – 77 years ago, German V1 and V2 rockets hit southern England, guided towards populated areas by rudimentary guidance systems. Anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines have been around much longer, lying in wait for unsuspecting victims sometimes decades later.
Anti-personnel landmines were banned by the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, and some campaigners have long called for a similar prohibition on autonomous killer drones.
They had argued this should be done before such technology became a reality, but it may already be too late. Whether or not the March 2020 Libya strike was the first autonomous drone attack, it is unlikely to last – and there may well have been more since then.