The world’s first recorded case of an autonomous drone attacking humans took place in March 2020, according to a United Nations (UN) security report detailing the ongoing Second Libyan Civil War. Libyan forces used the Turkish-made drones to “hunt down” and jam retreating enemy forces, preventing them from using their own drones, like reported by esquire.com.
The field report (via New Scientist) describes how the Haftar Affiliated Forces (HAF), loyal to Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, came under attack by drones from the rival Government of National Accord (GNA) forces. After a successful drive against HAF forces, the GNA launched drone attacks to press its advantage. From the report:
Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 (above) and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true “fire, forget and find” capability.
The report says Turkey supplied the drones to Libyan forces, which is a violation of a UN arms embargo slapped on combatants in the conflict.
The Kargu-2 (“Hawk”), from Turkish defense contractor STM, is a quadcopter drone designed to carry a weapons payload. STM’s marketing video below explicitly describes Kargu-2 as being capable of autonomous attack.
How does it work? First, the shooter loads coordinates into the Kargu-2 drone’s software, and then launches the drone. The drone will travel to those coordinates, identify likely “targets,” and execute a dive maneuver, swooping down on the target and blowing itself up as it detonates a shotgun-like explosive package.
In military parlance, this process is known as “fire and forget,” which means once the shooter launches the drone, they can do something else, like relocate, prepare another attack, or even go eat lunch.
Drone experts have been dreading this moment while advocating for a ban on autonomous attack drones.
“The UN report implying first use of autonomous weapons against soldiers paints an uncertain picture—however, that’s the point,” Zachary Kallenborn, an official U.S. Army “Mad Scientist” and national security consultant, tells Pop Mech. He continues:
“The first use of autonomous weapons in war won’t be heralded with a giant fireball in the sky and dark words on how humanity has become Death, Destroyer of Worlds. First use of autonomous weapons may just look like an ordinary drone. The event illustrates a key challenge in any attempt to regulate or ban autonomous weapons: how can we be sure they were even used?”
The Kargu-2 indeed looks like any other quadcopter drone. The major difference is the software, which might be difficult to obtain from scattered bits of plastic for forensic analysis. This raises the question: Could military forces modify civilian drones into human-hunting counterparts to attack civilians?
There are some events in the history of mankind, like the atomic bomb test in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945, that are so profound, they serve as a divider between one social, economic, or military era and another. The events in Libya may similarly divide the time when humans had full control of weapons, and a time when machines made their own decisions to kill.