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House Panel Explores Ethics Behind Using Unmanned Military Systems

X-47B tail number 501 flies over USS Theodore Roosevelt on Aug. 17, 2014. US Naval Institute Photo

X-47B tail number 501 flies over USS Theodore Roosevelt on Aug. 17, 2014. US Naval Institute Photo

“Our young people are really concerned about the ethical and moral use” of unmanned systems in combat, the Navy’s first deputy assistant secretary for unmanned systems told a key House subcommittee Thursday.

Frank Kelley, testifying before the House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, said, “At the end of the day, it’s going to be the commander who is held responsible” for those systems’ operations. In his opening statement he stressed the need to create an ethical and legal framework for their use “to gain the trust” of the sailors and Marines who will operate them.

He said the reason his position was created, along with the standing up of the office of unmanned warfare systems (N-99) in September, was to coordinate the Navy and Marine Corps work in those systems with each other and the other services.

“Autonomy is not a solved problem,” and “we must understand the limits of autonomy.” But Kelley said he saw the systems “as force multipliers across the Fleet” that require rethinking the way the services fight.

For the Navy, the technological challenges are great because such systems operate “in all domains simultaneously.” Kelley, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general with experience in electronic warfare and unmanned systems, specifically cited the difficulty in communications underwater and precision navigation as challenges.

Like the other witnesses, Kelley said the Navy was looking at co-developing the systems with other communities quickly. “The most important thing is getting the requirements right.” He said that means a vigorous program of prototyping and experimentation at the science and technology level “and constantly going back to the warfighter” for input.

To protect unmanned autonomous systems from being hacked, Kelley said the Navy “would lean heavily on the cyber side of the house” in the verification, validation and accreditation process for their integrity.

While the armed forces operate in a dynamic environment in combat, there are lessons they can take from the civilian sector. Kelley mentioned his discussions with the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in September, in which they shared “many of the same problems . . . air-space issue, sense and avoidance.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley during the Nov. 19, 2015 hearing.

Retired Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley during the Nov. 19, 2015 hearing.

He gave the subcommittee another example, this one from Afghanistan, in which a civilian logistical UAV operated and had the potential of delivering 6,000 pounds of cargo daily to remote operating bases.

Kelley and his counterparts from the other services said the civilian sector needs the opportunity to participate in demonstrations and exercises.

In opening the hearing, Rep. Joseph Wilson, (R-S.C.), said, the “full potential of autonomous systems is almost endless.”

  • sferrin

    Judas. Ask them whether they’d rather be in the jet when the missile is coming to kill them or sitting on the ground 5000 miles away. Also, what are missiles if not “unmanned systems”. Sounds like a lot of hand-wringing over nothing. We are talking about WAR people, not driving down to McDonald’s for a burger. You use the most effective tools you can find for making sure it’s the other guy that dies and not you. You can be sure neither Russia or China will waste 5 min. worrying about this nonsense.

    • MW80

      I Agree. The point is whether US want to win wars using the best weapons and tactics You have, or loosing it wasting time for bulshit like this one.

      • Rob C.

        In War: I’m more concern keeping self-ware system secured from being hacked. Weapon launched with computer running the show that’s giving real-time information, is one that could possibly hacked into after breaking it’s encryption.

        Morality: war doesn’t have any unless you decide if you want the other guy obey laws of war established by the UN. Become deattached from caring what happens on the other end of that weapon as person who launched it is thousands miles away. People on receiving end of it may not be intended target. That could generate backlash.

        Personally, i rather have manned aircraft than robotic. Takes away alot things. Skills, makes war arguably a easy thing for politicians to wage who won’t hear from civilians worrying about their children going into harms way. Etc.

        In the end, unmanned systems are hear to stay. Because nothing i mention above is going be taken seriously. Wars will be waged like video games until soldiers show up to clean up the aftermath.

        • sferrin

          “In War: I’m more concern keeping self-ware system secured from being hacked. ”

          You’ve been watching too much Michael Bay.

  • Tim Dolan

    There are some basic limitations I would impose on unmanned systems.
    1. Except within a designated geographic area (which should not be changeable once they are launched – and preferably someway hardwired in) they should never have full autonomous capability. Within that geographic boundary they could have full autonomous capability.

    2. If not geographically limited, then ANY offensive action taken should be human controlled. Defensive actions should be non-lethal or time limited in scope to no more than 15 minutes without input.

    3. A Return to Original Base command should be designed to always work when properly sent. It should cease all offensive and lethal defensive actions when sent. (Note: there could be a routine RTB (lethal autonomy can continue) and a command RTB (cease all non-lethal activities and RTB). It is the second which must work and be non hackable and as fool proof as possible.

    In general though young people not involved with the program don’t see that most unmanned systems as used by the military tend to actually minimize the chances of unintended casualties and collateral damage. I can’t speak to the CIA’s program, but they shouldn’t have any anyway, they should all be returned to a military service and borrowed when needed. It is usually the CIA’s strikes that are causing more problems then solving from a propaganda stand point. I suspect they don’t go through the same level of scrutiny the military does before a strike is conducted.

    Just my opinion.

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  • Chesapeakeguy

    Umm, help me here, but aren’t things like mines technically ‘unmanned systems’? How about ‘booby traps’? ‘Unmanned systems’, regardless of their uses, are a natural evolution as far as how mankind addresses any given situation. I have no problem with their use, I just hope that ‘our unmanned systems remain better than THEIR unmanned systems’!

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