The challenge posed by Lethal Autonomous Weapons

There are several significant challenges that are posed to the campaign against L.A.W.’s. One of these is that right now, already in significant and growing numbers across several nations are military drones used for surveillance and destroying targets from a distance. These are generally referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (U.A.V.’s)and include various American models such as Global Hawk, Reaper, Predator, Grey Eagle and others.

However I am talking about a type of weapon that is likely to start appearing in the near future. I cannot quite envisage what one would look like, but I would assume it to be like a drone or – possibly later on – an upright robot, with lethal capability, that can function without human input. And these are not some imagined weapon system inspired by science fiction so much as an ethically questionable and soon to be taken next step from the development of U.A.V.’s as military weapon systems.

Drones have a controversial record in terms of military applications. Their soaring use in Somalia, Yemen and also around Pakistan and Afghanistan by the United States military has been raising questions for years. President’s George W. Bush, Barak Obama and now Donald Trump have all escalated their use in the absence of conventional air power for dealing with targets. Tragically a large number of strikes have ended disastrously with civilians targetted at funerals, weddings and on family holidays, and not surprisingly the Governments of the nations where these strikes have occurred have strongly remonstrated with the operators of the drones – almost exclusively the United States military.

New Zealand has an interest as a nation of peace in ensuring we have no part in the development of what I expect will be a weapons system that even on its best day will find itself a foul of international law. L.A.W.’s represent a move into a future type of warfare where man is not the actual combatant any longer and that his ability to make battle field specific decisions will be increasingly done by machines.

From 3,000 kilometres away at the moment, a controller in the U.S. Airforce or Army will be watching a target with a view to determining whether or not an assassination strike is feasible. They will be making a split second judgement on whether to permit the drone to fire a Hellfire rocket that a split second later explodes in a fireball as it crashes into a target that might be a car, a house or some sort of armoured vehicle. There might be children playing in the streets, or people at the market buying food. The drone controller can instruct the drone to pull back and way further instructions. For a terminator the difference might not be much, but it is potentially disastrous. From 3,000 kilometres away or more, a controller at a computer will be watching really high resolution imagery being fed to them by the camera on the device. They will be able to see everything including the potential target. It sees a potential suspect outside a house with contacts. They are doing something, and there are children kicking a football around. Too close, but how will they tell the L.A.W. to not fire its weapon?

L.A.W.’s are coming and they represent an extremely dangerous development in military drone technology. There is a closing window of time to build up a coalition of nations that refuse to have anything to do with them. The military industrial complex will not be happy and nor will some politicians both in domestic and international circles, but do we honestly really need to add L.A.W.’s to human-kinds already dreadfully diverse array of killing people?

I think not.

But what if Pakistan and India clash is NOT posturing?

Three days ago, I looked at the flaring Kashmir tensions between India and Pakistan. I examined the history of flare ups between the two nations and who other participants in any conflict might be. And at the end I concluded that the current flare up is posturing – albeit dangerous posturing – between the two nuclear armed rivals.

But let us for a few harrowing minutes stop and look at what this would be if it were not posturing, but the prelude to a full blown conflict that escalates into a nuclear exchange?

I will start by making a couple of assumptions. The first is that there will be a short albeit brutal period of conventional war using the naval, air and ground forces of the two sides. In this particular scenario I will also assume China, which has a passing interest in Kashmir as well because it backs onto the Chinese border stays out of it – albeit no doubt on its highest non-war level of alert.

So, we will assume that the conflict is not going well for Pakistan, which is out numbered in just about every category of conventional weapon – tanks, artillery, aircraft, warships, troops. In the first instance Pakistan, rather than firing a nuclear warhead straight at India, might conduct a nuclear test just to test the water and remind everyone of how serious this conflict could become. It might rock India a bit, but the biggest alarm will be everywhere else around the world and in particular their immediate neighbours.

As a precaution after that I imagine the diplomatic missions from various nations to both countries might start being withdrawn, with only a skeletal crew left behind for urgent diplomatic purposes. India might test missiles or conduct a nuclear test in response as a form of sabre rattling. Chaos would probably ensue as nationals from all nations scramble to get out of the country, overwhelming border crossings, airports and ports alike.

I do not believe that there will be a limited exchange between India and Pakistan if one happens. Once a nuclear warhead is irretrievably on its way to a target, the target nation will have only a matter of minutes to determine whether it is an accident or an actual act of war. Because any launch is not going to be an accident, it will be most probably construed as act of war. At that point massive, unrestrained retaliation is the only probable reaction. It is called Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D. – and a wholly appropriate acronym at that!).

But what is truly scary about India and Pakistan potentially having a nuclear exchange, is that neither country has the checks and balances that any of the United Nations Security Council P5 or Israel have. It is for example a 100% deliberate act to launch a U.S. missile. In some respects even North Korea is safer because any order would ever come from President Kim Jong Un, and only if it is obvious his regime is going to be toppled by force.

There would be no winners in a nuclear exchange, irrespective of whether 10 warheads or their entire arsenals were used.

The estimate done in 2002 that 7-12 million would die immediately would possibly not even cover the actual exchange, and certainly not the hundreds of millions that die in the weeks and months following from Acute Radiation Sickness. The size of the nuclear arsenals India and Pakistan possess now are both about 5-6 times larger at about 140-150 warheads each. It would not cover the fact that millions of tons of radioactive debris will be sucked up by explosions – especially those at ground level – and dispersed by wind patterns, that will eventually spread it around the world. There will be crop failure on a massive scale internationally and  So let us hope that this settles down quickly and some sense is seen between the two sides.

Thousands of kilometres away on the other side of the Equator, do not assume New Zealand would be spared. If it is not the immediate effects of radiation and nuclear explosions, it will be the massive economic, political, social, environmental fallout.

Probably no nation around the world would be entirely spared the consequences of such an exchange.

Stop and think about that.


New Zealand should keep itself at arms distance from U.S., Russia

A while ago Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stated that she thought the nuclear moment of our present time is climate change. She said it, stating that New Zealand needs to take a decisive leadership role in reducing our carbon emissions. An admirable thing and certainly something that needs to happen.

But it is not the nuclear moment of NOW. That is playing out in the Middle East and has the potential to become much more immediate than climate change, which – whilst affecting us already – does not (so far as I know)have the ability to usher in a global holocaust in a matter of ours. It does not have the ability to accidentally usher in a nuclear exchange before people even realize what is happening.

I honestly never thought, until about early 2014, when Russia began its military build up in Syria and started testing western resolve over Ukraine that the risk of an East-West military confrontation would revive in my life time. Whilst since 2000 the risk had certainly been growing from one year to the next, the immediacy of the danger was not there. It is now. And the causes of it are dubious to say the least.

Neither the United States or Russia are playing an entirely honest and responsible game in Syria. Both have agenda’s that are more about suiting their foreign policy ambitions than helping to end a bloody civil war that has gone on for much too long. Both have the power and the means to end it today, but the strangulation of their geopolitical objectives mean their peoples are captive to politicians being jerked around – willingly – by the military industrial complex. For this is not about Syria anymore, but about who will be the decisive power in the Middle East. This is about raw ambition.

Perhaps it is telling us something that Russia has used its veto power as one of the Permanent 5 in the United Nations Security Council to block 12 separate resolutions on Syria. Perhaps it is telling us something that none of the N.A.T.O. countries purportedly standing for the rule of international law attacked suspected chemical weapons sites before United Nations personnel could verify that that is what they actually were.

But also the danger level in this conflict brings the world as close to an international incident – an incident that could potentially trigger a nuclear exchange by accident – as any conflict during the First Cold War. An accidental attack by N.A.T.O. forces on Russia, or vice versa could very easily escalate into a world conflict. If it does not do that, at the very least it would result large scale deployment of N.A.T.O. and Russian forces including potential nuclear forces.

What the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters should be doing is telling our international partners in no uncertain terms we only abide by international law. If they want our cooperation, they need to abide by it too.

What New Zealand should be doing is four fold:

  1. Demanding all countries comply with international law – and telling them New Zealand will have no participation in anything judged to be against said law
  2. Demanding an immediate cessation to hostilities
  3. Letting United Nations inspectors in with unfettered access to all sites of concern in Syria
  4. Let Red Cross have unfettered access to all victims of war

Our nuclear moment I do not think is climate change. Our nuclear moment is stopping this war turning into a nuclear moment.

I know not what weapons World War 3 will be fought with, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones


Keeping super power influence in check in South Pacific

Yesterday on the Q+A programme Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters raised the issue that Chinese influence in the South Pacific is going to be a significant concern of this Government’s foreign policy. The remarks, which come at the start of a week long tour of the South Pacific where Mr Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. will meet Pacific leaders, come against a backdrop of growing Chinese influence in a year where Chinese President Xi Jinping appears intent on becoming a 21st Century emperor.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. Right now neither nation is doing a particularly good job of this – following the Papua New Guinea earthquake last week, Australia has so far only just begun to move relief supplies in; New Zealand to the best of my knowledge has not yet done anything at all.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. Mr Trump, who is unlikely to be received by South Pacific island leaders strongly denies climate change, which many cite as a key problem for them. Instead, Mr Trump seems more in the sphere of influence that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promotes. Mr Turnbull’s Government has shown open skepticism of climate change, and both view China as a common problem. In “making America great again” by promoting policies that put America first Mr Trump seems to be putting America on a collision course with China.

Thus far the South Pacific island nations have not featured strongly on Mr Trump’s agenda. How long that is the case remains to be seen. Should Mr Trump become fixated on these little nations, the other question is context.

New Zealand reinstates Minister for Disarmament

The Minister for Disarmament is New Zealand’s cheer leader for the disarmament of nuclear, chemical, biological weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles (I.C.B.M.’s). During the previous National-led Government this was scrapped in part due to a thawing of New Zealand American ties, but also despite a significant increase in the likelihood of an accidental nuclear exchange, a policy shift in favour of a more war like stance.

During the last several years there has been a dangerous acceleration of the strategic arms race. Some of it is driven by a re-emerging Russia – the primary nation of the former U.S.S.R. has restarted a number of mothballed Cold War era military projects, such as the TU-160 Blackjack bomber programme, introduced new missiles and started overhauling its armour. Then there is a declining United States fearful of losing it’s super power status, spending too much on it’s military, alienating friends and allies alike and rocked by increasingly divisive domestic politics. A third one is an increasingly belligerent North Korea, spurred on the growing list of sanctions against it, testing nuclear weapons as fast as it can make them ready. Combine this with United States President Donald Trump wanting to kill the Iranian nuclear agreement despite the likelihood Iranian co-operation and the eastward expansion of N.A.T.O. and is there any wonder that the nuclear doomsday clock is at 2358hrs?

New Zealand has a long and proud history of championing nuclear disarmament. The peaceful protests around Mururoa Atoll, the protests on Waitemata Harbour against a visiting U.S. submarine in the early 1980’s and the anti-nuclear legislation have shown the world what New Zealanders stand for. Reinstating the Disarmament portfolio is a good way of restarting a commitment that had begun to slide under the previous National Government.

But will other countries come to nuclear disarmament talks if we champion them. Mr Trump and Russian counterpart Vladmir Putin do not seem to terribly care for the international concerns about the Middle East. The war in Syria is an unfortunate situation where International law is being undermined by ideological and geopolitical differences. Both regional and international payers are at work here. If Russia or the U.S. made a direct play and tried to stop the fghting by force it might drag the other in. Chances of an accidental nuclear exchange escalate if there is a direct superpower confrontation.

Still the idea of another round of strategic arms limitations talks would not be a bad idea in the least.