Landmines are Banned. Should Drones Aloft be Classified as Airmines?

The United Nations has this introduction to the subject of mines and disarmament:

Landmines come in two varieties: anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Both have caused great suffering in the past decades. Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (or Mine Ban Convention), adopted in 1997. More than 150 countries have joined this treaty. Its positive impact includes a marked reduction of casualties, an increased number of mine-free States, destroyed stockpiles and improved assistance to victims.

The question becomes if land-mines are prohibited, aren’t drones aloft (loitering munitions of WWII that explode on some trigger mechanism) thus simply air-mines and prohibited already?

Israel’s recent use of drones is being described in Defense Update as an intentional move away from human oversight in anti-personnel explosives.

First, Israel is calling out safety and human oversight as too slow to engage in combat:

In recent years drones have proved essential for all military operations, providing critical intelligence and pursuing time-sensitive targets. As they loiter over the battlespace, drones can spot enemy activities on the ground, but transferring this insight into action may take hours as the call for fire is processed through the echelons until the order to fire is approved.

Empowering the company commanders with the means and authority to order and approve an attack by their organic weapons, supporting artillery, naval, or air support enables the IDF to engage targets having a short lifespan. These targets are often exposed by exploiting the friction created through the movement of manned or unmanned combat units in enemy territory.

That seems like a simple enough problem to solve, like giving orders to authorize a soldier holding a gun to use discretion when firing and not call for approval, unless a call is needed.

A Navy SEAL told me a story about this where he had given his men orders to immediately shoot anyone they saw pointing weapons at the American President — without delay and without need for approval.

Soon after a call came through for approval to fire at someone pointing a gun at the President. Confused by the request, he asked questions. The answer became a foreign soldier was pointing a large sniper rifle towards the President (ostensibly to help guard him by looking through its scope for targets). Obviously the SEAL leader said don’t fire.

Second, although Israel is emphasizing a chain of command and authorized discretion by a company, it is not clear that will continue to hold true.

This video makes the drone look very much more like a mine designed to be remotely staged, almost like planting to explode later on a simple wireless trigger.

Will swarms be converted by “efficiency” pressure (like how artillery shells became IED) into becoming airborne mines?

Here’s the conclusion of the Defense Update:

On May 6, 2021, as the fighting in the south erupted, the new S&D unit moved quickly to become the first military unit to operate drone swarms in combat. Within few hours, they deployed and fielded this brand-new system, seeking and destroying dozens of hidden enemy targets in complex terrain in rural and urban areas.

Within a few days, the new unit brought stunning results. A single company empowered by drone swarms, precision weapons, and comprehensive C4I delivered over 30 missions, destroying dozens of enemy targets several kilometers beyond the border. They were able to locate the enemy in complex urban and densely vegetated rural areas, designate targets, assess those targets at the company CP, strike the targets selected for engagement and perform battle damage assessment (BDA), all that done within minutes by drone swarms. Following the success of these S&D companies, the GFC recommended converting all combat support companies in regular force to S&D companies over the next year.

I read that as the only ethics/oversight gate remaining would be to “assess targets at the company CP and select for engagement”, unless you count BDA, while it’s all done within minutes”.

With that in mind, a problem of mines in the area is a story dating back to at least WWII.

The Arab Republic of Egypt is contaminated with mines and explosive remnants of war in the Western Desert, which date from World War II, and in the Sinai Peninsula and Eastern Desert, which are a legacy of wars with Israel between 1956 and 1973. […] The government has stated that some 17 million landmines were left in the Western Desert and another 5.5 million in Sinai and the Eastern Desert.

Some important lessons there, surely. What if drone swarms are left behind? What if they are commandeered or corrupted? Imagine a swarm being tricked into drifting backwards towards launchers and targeting owners, or just being left behind and then recycled into some future terrorism campaign.

The next question perhaps is blow-back, as old mines left in the desert during long-ago wars have been dug out and repurposed into modern IED by terrorists.

…these munitions have become part of a new and worrisome trend. As the Islamic State and other jihadi groups have grown throughout the region, sometimes roaming unchecked across long, porous borders, a few have realized the potential power of this massive cache of explosives, much of it buried here by the Nazis. Military and civilian officials in Cairo say ISIS and other groups have already MacGyvered these decades-old mines, using their components for bombs, improvised explosive devices (IED) and other instruments of death. “We’ve had at least 10 reports from the military of terrorists using old mines, says Fathy el-Shazly, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who until recently served as Egypt’s land mine clearance czar. “Even now, these things trouble us in different ways.”

A Nazi is either laying or clearing mines. Can you tell from this photo? If you were authorized to shoot, what would you do?

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