Banning Robotic Weapons

Autonomous killer robots aren't just science fiction anymore, and a lot of people would like to ban them. A recent major conference in Geneva failed to agree though.  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/17/world/robot-drone-ban.html

I don't think that the prospects are very good, at least partially because it's a ban that would be very hard to enforce.  Killer robots don't need a vast industrial base like nuclear weapons.  They can be built in modest warehouses using cell-phone brains and other widely available components.  Those that proved decisive in the recent war over Nagorno-karabakh were built by Israel and Turkey, and lots of others are in on building them, notably the US, China, and Russia.  Another obvious reason for skepticism is that they appear to be a military game changer, probably as big a one as the tank and the machine gun.  Nagorno-karabakh proved that they can be devastating against tanks and entrenched troops, as well as logistics.  Because they are small and relatively cheap, they tend to even the odds between a big power and an insurgency.  I also think that they could be crucial as defensive weapons.

Invasion and occupation requires large scale movements of troops and weapons, exactly the kinds of targets that the killer drones are most effective against.  Russia is currently massing troops near Ukraine, threatening invasion.  If Ukraine had a big supply of anti-tank and anti-transport drones, it could make this kind of invasion very costly.  China too is making menacing noises about invasion of Taiwan.  Taiwan has no hope of maintaining air superiority against a Chinese assault, but robot fighters could make a full scale aerial attack very costly.

Fully robotic fighter jets don't seem to exist yet, but I expect that the reasons have less to do with technology than the sort of sentiments that had the French Army clinging to cavalry long past its sell date.  That, and the fact that US jet builders are hopelessly enamored of building planes that cost $100 million each and recoil in horror at the thought of a robotic fighter that might be built for a couple of million.


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