Things I’ve been reading – 27/11/15


I thought writing blogs about what I’ve been reading would be a good way to disseminate interesting information which I’ve come across, and with a selfish bent, it allows me to remember what I’ve read, and be able to post something when I’m not brimming with new ideas.

As I’ve been at the PhD for a couple of months now, this first post will just be an overview of some of the most interesting things I’ve read.

I started off reading some things about complexity theory and systems theory. Inspired by a conference held here at Lancaster a week before my PhD actually started on complexity theory and jurisprudence, I thought complexity theory or systems theory might be a good way to knit together my ideas of competing Law of Armed Conflict (LoAC) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) legal decision engines within an Autonomous Weapon System (AWS).

Although all very interesting, and often quite intellectually challenging to get my head around, I don’t think complexity theory would work with AWS. Although the law can be seen as a complex system, the decision engine in an AWS cannot really be complex, as the legal framework it must follow would need to be scaled down to a series of decisions an AWS could make. For example, whilst humans could argue over whether someone qualifies as a legitimate target and can come to the decision of ‘maybe’, and AWS control systems need to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

In terms of systems theory, I’m not really sure if I can apply that either. As someone who didn’t really know what it was all about, I never realised it was concerned with social systems, rather than those of computers. I have an inkling that cybernetics could be useful, but I’ve not looked at it yet, I’m keeping it on the back burner.


The Drone Papers were something else I read with great interest. Unfortunately, there wasn’t that much new information in them. You can see an article I wrote a few months ago on targeted killing here (at the time I was unaware that the US Air Force 17th Reconnaissance Squadron had been flying CIA drone flights). Most of the ‘revelations’ were already known about, and three powerpoint presentations is hardly a ‘treasure trove’. But, there were interesting things, the most striking was that in Operation Haymaker in Afghanistan, individuals in the vicinity of a targeted terrorist were being assumed to also be terrorists. This is both worrying and illegal, an individual in a combat zone not in a military uniform is assumed to be a civilian unless proven otherwise, as stated in the Geneva Conventions.


I’ve also been reading lots of things about the NSA’s role in Targeted Killing, which is very interesting. I’m talking on this subject at both Liverpool and Edinburgh Postgraduate Law Conferences. I’m aiming to write a long blog post once I’ve done the presentations to show what I’ve been talking about in blog format.


Online, I’ve been reading lots of post on Derek Gregory’s blog Geographical Imaginations, which is here. I really would recommend it for information about drones, targeted killing, and modern war from a geographical viewpoint.


A couple of weeks ago I went through the expert legal testimony on drones for the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. The testimony is available hereherehere and here. It is on the whole very interesting, and sounds very authoritative, if rather hawkish. Most seem quite happy with the new legal paradigm that the US administration has offered of a Global Armed Conflict against Al-Qaeda and Associated Forces. I am not convinced, I much rather the idea that each country where counter-terrorism actions are happening are a separate, if connected, armed conflict – although I’ve yet to cement by opinion in a written chapter!

However, compared with the new UK Parliamentary  Joint Human Rights Select Committee inquiry into drones following the deaths of Reyaad Khan, Ruhul Amin, and an unknown third man. The evidence submitted is certainly different from that presented to the US Congress. Although I’ve not managed to get through it all yet, it certainly isn’t as hawkish, and is often quite damming. Of course, the situations which the drones were and are flying in are different, but the change in approach is startling. Many in the US evidence were happy to prop up their administrations legal arguments, but in the UK it seems like most are on the attack. Admittedly, the legal justifications for the Raqqa strike by the RAF given by the PM really weren’t very good, and the criticisms are valid, but the difference is certainly interesting.


I’ve been reading lots of other things, including the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, I was thinking of writing a blog on drones and autonomy, but no autonomy is mentioned, and the mentions are drones are few. Mentions of the 20 new ‘Protector’ drones, which are going to be an enhanced version of the Reaper, and will fill the hole in the MoD’s Scavenger project. For a brilliant overview of the UK’s drone future, see here. The article also mentions the UK-France joint project on future UCAVs, which will take pieces from BAE’s Taranis and the Dassault nEUROn drones. I had been struggling to think what the two advanced prototype demonstrators would be for, thankfully this explains it.

I also came across a report by the House of Commons Defence Committee on Decision-Making in Defence Policy (here). I was hoping to use some of it for my work on AWS decision-making systems, but it’s about higher-level stuff. The section that did raise an eyebrow was about planning for the British Engagement in Helmand, which some US commanders wanted to just abandon to the Taliban, the Mod though they could control the province, an area of 20,000 sq. miles with 3,000 troops. Considering that around two thirds of deployments are support and service personnel, this leaves 1,000 riflemen, split into shifts, this leaves only a few hundred on duty at any one time. Optimistic is an understatement. It eventually took 32,000 coalition soldiers and 32,000 Afghan troops to control Helmand. I hope the MoD make better decisions when it comes of AWS.

Until next time!

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