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THE US air force is seeking to develop a cluster weapon that releases a swarm of bomblets that could each pursue and destroy targets many kilometres away, New Scientist has learned.

"This is a dangerous and very worrying development," says Noel Sharkey, a specialist in the ethics of autonomous systems at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Sharkey has argued that giving a robot the power to decide when and who to attack raises serious practical and ethical questions, and says the same would apply to the proposed weapon.

The US Department of Defense revealed its requirements for the weapon in an online research request. In it, the air force asked American aerospace firms to submit proposals by 24 September for a weapon that "engages multiple targets" using "guided smart submunitions". The request says the submunitions - the formal term for bomblets - should be equipped with sensors capable of locking on to targets up to 5 kilometres away, and should have enough onboard power to chase a moving target for up to 5 minutes.


"These new bomblets would effectively be miniaturised air-to-surface missiles," says Colin King, an analyst with Jane's, a defence publisher based in the UK.

The air force hopes the guided weapons will "increase accuracy and reduce collateral damage". That will depend on the reliability of the weapon's decision-making software and its sensors, although according to Sharkey there is no way these "smart" submunitions will be able to distinguish between combatants and civilians. "If a target moves into a highly populated area, I can't think of any sensors that could reliably discriminate between civilian and military vehicles," he says.

Existing "smart" cluster bombs scatter bomblets equipped with lasers and infrared sensors, which allows them to identify targets such as tanks and trucks. That's not necessarily enough to tell friend from foe, but at least their range is limited - to about 350 metres in the case of the US-made BLU-108. The proposal, however, calls for bomblets that lock back on to targets if they happen to lose track of them, meaning they might lock on to the wrong vehicle.

"The distinction between military and civilian targets cannot be made by electronics: it has to be a human decision," says Richard Moyes of Landmine Action in London. "Relying on computerised sensors to attack targets raises fundamental moral and legal questions."

It's not clear if such weapons would breach the Convention on Cluster Munitions due to be signed by 109 countries in Oslo in December. The CCM permits cluster weapons as long as they can reliably identify targets and deactivate or self-destruct if they miss. The US is not signing up, because it says it is building weapons intelligent enough to render themselves harmless if they stray off course (New Scientist, 7 June, p 25).

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