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23/01/20: The Coming of Unmanned Vessels to Maritime Warfare: Or are They Weapons?

The work of Robert Sparrow, an Australian analyst, has raised key questions about the implications of the coming of the various types of unmanned systems to the warfare domain for the rules of war, or the ethical implications of their use.

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Are they vessels and thus governed by current maritime conventions or are they weapons and to be treated differently from the current maritime conventions governing vessels?

In a piece which he coauthored with George Lucas, an American analyst, they posed a number of key questions which they believe are raised by the applications of autonomous UUVs and USVs:

  • Should armed autonomous UUVs and USVs be understood (as the comparatively modest body of legal literature to date has posed the problem) as “vessels” or as “weapons”?

  • With what sorts of operations might autonomous UUVs and USVs legitimately be tasked in international, as opposed to territorial, waters?

  • Is the operation of armed autonomous systems compatible with freedom of navigation in international waters?

  • What is the capacity of future maritime and underwater autonomous systems, when weaponized, to abide by the requirements of distinction and proportionality in naval warfare?

  • What are the implications, with regard to the design and the ethics of the use of autonomous UUVs and USVs, of customary maritime duties, e.g., toward persons lost at sea?

“What seems clear to both authors, despite specific differences, is that much more work remains to be done to resolve the question whether—or per- haps which—UUVs and USVs should be conceptualized as vessels or weapons, and to settle the role that should be accorded to legal conventions and historical debates about mine warfare in shaping future practice regarding UUVs.

The fact that such systems blur the lines between weapons platforms and weapons means that ethical as well as legal frameworks may need to be rethought and refined in the pursuit of an appropriate balance between the demands of military necessity and humanitarian concerns in the naval warfare of the future.”

They raise these questions notably with regard to the search and rescue mission. Certainly, UUVs and USVs could add situational awareness to situations in which search and rescue are required as a result of armed conflict, but is more required than SA?

The question of the potential role and responsibilities of naval autonomous systems for search and rescue is explicitly pursued in an article which Sparrow then wrote with Rob McLaughlin and Mark Howard. They argued that given that search and rescue will clearly be a key element resulting from maritime conflict, there is a need to ensure that maritime remotes should be configured to be able to execute this mission.

According to the authors: “The designers of early UUVs and USVs should provide these systems with this capacity and publicize the fact that they have done so. In order to motivate this policy, we would strongly encourage those who are responsible for the design of these systems to imagine that they might be fighting alongside them – or might at least have to go to sea during wartime – and thus might one day find themselves in need of rescue.”

In my view, I am persuaded that the information generated by maritime remotes clearly is part of the ISR and C2 environment which is being built out for the evolving fleet structure. And such data can be put to use across the spectrum of operations, including search and rescue.

I am not sure that envisaging USVs to be able to be designed to do search and rescue is likely unless one is considering engaging the logistical support capabilities which clearly will be built in the future to support amphibious operations.

But these systems are very likely to operate with manned systems in a mesh network but considering how this capability might be tasked for search and rescue makes a good deal of sense to me.

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