The X-47B is usually described as a bat. It is short and wide, with a massive body that looks like a science fiction prop. And there is some truth to that claim. As an experimental plane (which is what the 'X' indicates), the X-47B represents the future. It is a drone, which is futuristic enough, but it also has the capacity to change warfare in a far more extensive manner than any of its predecessors.
Earlier Wednesday, the Navy culminated eight years and more than a billion dollars' worth of testing. It landed the X-47B successfully on the USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia.
To be clear, landing aboard an aircraft carrier is the one of the hardest feats in military aviation. The landing strip is tiny (usually around 500 feet). The target, and the plane, are moving. And it only works if you catch the tail of the plane on four hooks sitting on the runway. To make things even more difficult, at night you can barely even see the carrier, and night landings happen often.
Clearly, the landing itself was a technological feat. But there's another, even more significant technological breakthrough behind the news. The X-47B landed autonomously, which means that it landed entirely on its own without any human interactions or interference.
This is the true technological achievement behind the landing. All of the current drones in today's arsenal, including the feared Raptor and Predator drones, are semi-autonomous, which means that a human pilot still operates them from a remote location, usually an Air Force base in Nevada.
Today was the first time that a drone flew for an extended period of time on its own. While humans designed and programmed its flight plan, it also landed independently, which means that it made complex calculations about altitude, speed, and wind conditions while adjusting accordingly.
It's truly an incredible technological achievement. And it's potentially terrifying from an ethical and legal standpoint.
Drones, of course, are no stranger to ethical and legal controversies. But most of the controversy about their use, including the famous reports by Human Rights Watch and NYU and Stanford Law Schools, does not actually address the Predator and Raptor drones currently in use. The most prominent, and controversial issues, about drones stem from their potential autonomy. And no drone, for the moment, is actually autonomous.
The X-47B can change all of this. While previous drones removed humans from the theater of conflict, the X-47B has the capacity to remove humans from the process entirely.
It is impossible, then, to underestimate the significance of the X-47B and the implications of the carrier landings. Besides the myriad ethical issues that arise from using robots to inflict physical harm, and even kill humans, the fact is that the laws or armed conflict are not sufficiently equipped to address their deployment.
On just about every level of analysis, the laws of war predicate themselves upon human agency and human responsibility. They require humans to select and target combatants. They require humans to decide what constitutes proportional force. And they require humans to make decisions of supreme moral consequence in the face of humanity's worst atrocities.
It is debatable whether drones will ever be able to make these decisions. Programming precision, the ability to decide whether or not a human is a legal combatant or non-combatant, is nearly impossible as it is. But even greater questions remain. How can we hold a machine accountable for mistakes or even war crimes? How can we ever program a machine to recognize the significance of human life, particularly if its mission is to kill? And how can we ever imbue a machine with that most innately human of qualities: moral and philosophical consciousness?
These questions are the reason why many individuals and organizations, including UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Ben Emmerson, have called for an end to the research and development of autonomous weapons systems. But it is hard to imagine their rhetoric overcoming the force of both technology and world politics. Technology does not regress. Instead, it propels itself forward upon the drive of human curiosity and the perception of human progress. And neither will states cease to pursue what they perceive as their best interest, especially when it comes to international security and the global balance of power. The United States will not stop developing autonomous weapons systems, nor will it prevent other countries from eventually acquiring that technology.
So, for better or worse, the march of history moves forward. Experiments succeed. Production begins. And we are left to permanently face the consequences of our actions, whatever those may be.