A Ministry of Defence think tank has warned that the growing use of unmanned aircraft in combat situations raises huge moral and legal issues, and threatens to make war more likely as robots take over from human beings.
The report warned of the dangers of an “incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality”, referring to James Cameron’s 1984 movie, in which humans are hunted by robotic killing machines.
It said the pace of technological development was accelerating so much that Britain must quickly establish a policy on what will constitute “acceptable machine behaviour”.
Drones, armed with cameras and increasingly with bombs and missiles, are fast becoming a key weapon of modern warfare.
As drones are operated remotely and are targeted using intelligence that is often unclear or mistaken, it is scarcely surprising that they strike innocent civilians.
The US regards the pilotless aircraft as vital to its operations in Afghanistan, particularly for attacks on suspected insurgents and al-Qaida remnants across the border in Pakistan.
The Obama administration has dramatically stepped up the use of CIA drones, not only along the Afghan/Pakistan border, but also in Yemen and Somalia.
Israel is also at the forefront of drone technology, but Britain and France have been slow to invest in these increasingly sophisticated aircraft.
The US-manufactured General Atomics Reaper is at the moment the RAF’s only armed unmanned aircraft. It can fly for more than 18h, has a range of 3600 miles, and can operate at up to 50,000ft. The Reapers, armed with bombs and missiles, are operated by RAF personnel based at Creech in Nevada using a satellite datalink.
By 2030, almost a third of the RAF could be made up of remotely controlled planes, which by then will be operated from a base in East Anglia.