In March 2020, as COVID-19 locked down the world, what may have been the first autonomous drone attacks in history were taking place on a largely unwatched battlefield in Libya.
According to a U.N. report published in March this year, Libyan forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) used Turkish-made STM Kargu-2 drones to hunt down units loyal to former Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
The report – prepared by independent experts for a U.N. panel on Libya arms sanctions breaches – stated that the four-rotor drones were programmed in “autonomous mode” to attack fleeing logistics convoys and other vehicles automatically, without further human intervention.
If correct, that would represent the first documented such incident on a battlefield – a development that has long been predicted and feared by military and human rights experts alike. While drones have been a feature of the battlefield for years – from strikes by large U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles to much smaller devices operated by militant groups such as Islamic State – they have still required a human being to operate the “kill switch”.
That such a step may have taken place unheralded and largely unnoticed, however, should not be a surprise.