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Opinion Articles


Mines: the original “autonomous weapons” and the failure of early 20th century arms control


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At a major international conference a delegation issued a statement outlining the dramatic effect that autonomous weapons (a weapon or weapons system which, once activated, can operate without human intervention) were having on their countrymen and women. They went on to say that the weapons had so far killed between five and six hundred innocent civilians despite their country being nothing more than a neutral bystander in the conflict.

This is the nightmare scenario for those who are campaigning against the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), and such concerns have driven the establishment of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on LAWS under the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The above description is not, however, a fictionalized account of some future United Nations gathering examining the use of LAWS, but is instead a statement issued by the Chinese delegation to the Second International Peace Conference at The Hague in 1907. The ‘dangerous engines’ which the Chinese were complaining of were not combat drones driven by complex AI software, but were in fact humble naval mines. The technology was, even by the standards of the day, simple, but the use of these weapons in the Russo-Japanese War represented an important change in the nature of warfare and one with direct relevance to contemporary debates on autonomous weapons.     

Early mines are the most basic form of autonomous weapon, using a simple mechanical device to fire an explosive charge on being struck by a ship. This is not complicated, but, for the first time, it meant that humans were removed from the loop of military decision-making. The question of whether humans remain in or on the loop is a central one to modern debates over LAWS and the origins of this can be traced back to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) when mines were deployed on a large scale for the first time. The weapon proved hugely successful in sinking enemy warships, but they also sank neutral merchantmen, and broke free from their moorings and drifted down the coast of China, plaguing fishing and trading communities.

Public opinion in the UK and US was outraged at what it saw as the complete disregard for customary international law and demanded that the weapons be banned. The issue was considered to be one of the most important to be discussed at the 1907 Hague Conference and one where it was expected that an agreement would be reach to either ban mines altogether, or place the most stringent limitations on their use.

At the Conference, Britain, as the hegemonic power, pushed for mines to be banned; however their efforts were thwarted by the stubborn opposition of two influential states. German resistance was expected, especially in light of their limited regard for international law, but it was opposition from the US that torpedoed the British proposals. The US position was surprising considering how strongly the public and politicians had reacted against the use of mines by the Russians and Japanese. However, the advantages offered by the cheap and flexible weapons system were eventually seen by the US government to outweigh the obvious humanitarian concerns. As such only a very limited, and flawed agreement was reached to control the use of mines in future conflicts.

When war broke out in August 1914 even these limited agreements soon fell by the wayside. The Germans, unsurprisingly, considering their position at The Hague, used mines from outset of the war with little regard for their impact on neutrals and non-combatants. The British situation is in many ways more remarkable. There is no doubt that opposition to mines was strong within the British government, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, described them as ‘a hellish device’. Yet within weeks of the outbreak of war the Cabinet was discussing the use of the weapons specifically to target neutral vessels, and by October 1914 Asquith ordered their deployment ‘on a Napoleonic scale’.

Edwardian society was almost unanimous in condemning mines as illegal and unethical due to their autonomous nature, and the danger they posed to non-belligerents. Despite this, arms control failed. In large part it did so because mines were cheap and effective, in exactly the same way that their far more developed LAWS cousins promise to be. Beyond this arms control depends on trust and accountability, and autonomous weapons from mines forward invariably offer a degree of plausible deniability. The failure of arms control at the Hague Conference was in a certain respect irrelevant. The fact that militaries across the major powers expected their opponents to deploy mines in a future conflict ensured that they developed and planned to use the weapons themselves.

As the GGE begin to think about the role and scope of arms control for LAWS it is worth keeping in mind the failures of the first attempts in this direction. The simple fact that there is a consensus of opinion which views the weapons as immoral or unethical is not enough to ensure successful arms control. To achieve this the costs of deploying such weapons must outweigh the advantages, and crucially there must be sufficient transparency not merely to ensure compliance, but also to provide confidence in the process for other powers.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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