Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies

Operational Advantages and Risks in the Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Eugene Miasnikov's remarks at the Round Table "International Humanitarian Law and New Weapon Technologies," Sanremo, Italy, September 8-10, 2011

First, let me thank Ambassador Moreno and the International Institute of Humanitarian Law for the opportunity to be here with you today. It is both an honor and pleasure.

It is quite a challenge to speak in this audience, as many of you have substantial expertise on the problem I am going to talk about. Nevertheless, let me try to identify the key issues from a prospective of a Russian analyst with a technical background. I hope to be able to help in stimulating a constructive discussion on these issues.

Perhaps, it is more appropriate to talk about unmanned aerial systems rather than vehicles, as we consider operational advantages of UAVs. What makes potential customers interested in using UAVs? The fact that a UAV is operated as an element of a system which includes an infrastructure on the ground, reliable communication and information distribution links, so that the customer gets the final product in a usable form and in a timely manner. Otherwise, UAVs remain promising experimental tools showing some potential, but not ready yet to be used on a regular basis.

Many countries are currently produce UAVs, but only few of them as the United States or Israel passed the gap of creating such a system. A notable example is Russia with its strong aviation industry. Over a dozen Russian companies are currently offering experimental UAVs, but potential customers like the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Ministry for Internal Affairs and the Ministry for Civil Defense and Emergencies are buying these UAVs in very limited numbers mostly with a purpose to assess their potential. Apparently there is a demand there, but thus far there is also a lack of unmanned system technology solutions.

What operational advantages unmanned systems can offer? The answer is well known. They can perform the tasks that are dangerous, dull or "dirty" for piloted airplanes, like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations or various combat missions. They can also offer more affordable solutions in civilian applications, compared to those that are currently implemented. This list can be continued. Perhaps, it does not make sense to spend more time discussing operational advantages. You may find them in every commercial booklet on UAVs.

What about the risks?

The focus of our meeting is to discuss risks occurring because practice of unmanned system application creates contradictions with the Humanitarian Law (or it may create in future). Practices, such as CIA drone operations in Pakistan and other places raise profound and timely questions. In particular,

There is also a big question for future, (which was the focus of Prof. Arkin's talk): will humankind be able to delegate the right of making decisions to robots on a use of lethal weapons? The answers are needed fairly soon as technology apparently is moving fast in this direction.

The problem of using weaponized drones (UCAVs) is, of course, much broader. Some analysts put it in the following way. Is the practice of targeted killing with the use of drones really solves the proclaimed goals, makes the region a safer place and contributes to sustainable development? If the answer is "No", we have the risks of further destabilization of a political situation in the regions with a huge impact on the rest of the world.

Contradictions with the existing legal norms are not necessarily limited to military systems. In particular, one may raise the question how to protect the basic human right to have a private life, as UAVs are increasingly used for surveillance purposes by police or security forces? Who is to decide that such methods of gathering evidence are legal and under what circumstances that is the case?

There are also risks of a different nature. On the first glance they are beyond the scope of our Round Table. However, I'd suggest that we consider them here. Risks of a different nature require differing solutions. Let me make a point, that seeking those solutions may create some synergies and help to solve the problem we are primarily focused on.

What are those other risks I have in mind?

1) The risks associated with the fact that most of unmanned systems are not sufficiently reliable yet by existing common technical standards. Frequently UAVs malfunction or go out of control, which may result in significant costs. UAVs are not cheap by themselves. UAVs may also cause significant damage as they fall on the ground in urban areas. Finally they share airspace with manned aircraft. Fortunately, the pilots of U.S. Air Force C-130 airplane managed successfully land after a mid-air collision with RQ-7 Shadow UAV in the skies of Afghanistan this August, but, as you could imagine, it could have been much worse.

2) The risks occurring because assigning UAVs military roles (especially offensive ones) by one state, may cause legitimate concerns and reaction by other states, and stimulate regional arms race. In my opinion, it is extremely important to realize these risks as the humankind pursues the goal to get rid of the most dangerous and devastating tools of war - weapons of mass destruction.

In particular, efforts to get rid of nuclear weapons may be undermined by current trends in development of conventional arms, especially in the United States. One of the directions of unmanned aerial system evolution, as Dr. Neuneck and Dr. Hitchens, told us yesterday is developing hypersonic long-range unmanned combat aerial vehicles for accomplishing Prompt Global Strike missions. Let me remind, that Prompt Global Strike program currently aims at developing a capability to deliver limited conventional kinetic strike anywhere on the globe within half-an-hour - one hour timeframe. By the way, systems, developed for ISR purposes, may also have a role in the Prompt Global Strike missions, as there is a need for guidance of the strikes and post-strike damage assessment. Another direction of UAV evolution - is their potential use in ballistic missile defense systems - particularly those, that are intended for boost-phase intercept.

Development of unmanned systems in the US is watched attentively in Russia. There is a common view shared by majority of Russian analysts, that the next phase of nuclear reductions will require setting limits on strategic conventional arms. Ballistic or hypersonic missiles carrying conventional warheads are considered as destabilizing arms, since they might have capability to disable strategic ICBM launchers. It is interesting, that when the New START Treaty was discussed by Russian legislators in the State Duma in January this year, the draft statement on the Treaty ratification, proposed by the Communist faction, contained a requirement that prior to the ratification Russia and the US should conclude treaties limiting UCAVs among other things. This draft has been rejected. However, I'll not be surprised, if the issue is raised again in near future.

3) Finally, there is also another group of risks. As the unmanned aerial systems are developed, we need to ask a question, what might happen, if UAVs turn out to be in the wrong hands of non-state actors, like terrorists. This issue has been studied in our Center. The results of the study were published seven years ago, in a report that can be accessed at our Center's website.

Let me just very briefly summarize the conclusions of the study:

The threat of terrorist's UAVs is not the top item in the threat priority list these days. Nevertheless, it exists and it will eventually grow, as UAVs more and more enter into our life.

Even small payloads of few kilograms can create significant damage and mass casualties, especially in case of bio or chemical weapons.

The most likely threat may occur from mini-UAVs. The most worrisome situation stems from model aircraft, where uncontrolled access to the knowledge, skills, and equipment required for mini-UAV assembly exists.

The main accent of dealing with the threat of terrorist UAVs needs to be on proactive measures. I believe the key to the answer is educating the culture. There is a role here for governmental agencies and NGOs. There is a little chance to stop terrorist's UAV attack, unless general public is made aware of the threat and its potential consequences.

Let me stop here. Thank you for your attention.