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British Army CIO emphasises military automation must be “within legal and ethical framework”

British Army CIO Major General Jonathan Cole believes the use of “mechanical autonomy and autonomous decision-making needs to be made in a legal and ethical framework” as the military targets the use of technology innovations to develop its capabilities.

The CIO and Director and Information, Maj Gen Cole was speaking at NS Tech and CBR‘s CIO Town Hall Live forum discussing what digital transformation meant for the British Army, developing the military’s cyber capabilities, digitising the battle-space, and the disruptive emerging technologies he expects to have the biggest impact at the institution.

[View CIO Town Hall Live sessions on-demand]

After discussing innovations in Internet of Things technologies and the army’s next generation of Unmanned Aerial Systems – handheld launch drones with a range of 50-60km which the army calls Mini UAS – Maj Gen Cole cited the potential of innovations in automation.

“I think autonomy is really important, and that’s autonomy in all its guises,” Maj Gen Cole said. “In a mechanical sense we’re looking at creating ground vehicles and aerial vehicles that can operate in a way that in the past human beings would have to do.”

The benefits were two-fold, the CIO said. “First it potentially releases manpower from activity that you don’t need humans to always be doing, and secondly it also removes humans from some of the most hazardous activities of the soldier’s life – a very obvious example where we’ve done autonomy for a long time has been in ordnance disposal and survey of our high risk zones where there could be improvised explosive devices. And really, we need to be ready to do that at scale.”

Maj Gen Cole discussed making autonomous decisions, but stressed the importance of controls and policy.

“Now, of course, a lot of a lot of this isn’t just about mechanical autonomy,” he said. “It’s about being able to make autonomous decisions as well – that needs to be within a legal and ethical framework.

“You need to be able to manage multiple autonomous vehicles – whether aerial or ground-based – concurrently, and you need to be able to use them, in the most extreme cases, you might wish to be using those two to deliver kinetic firepower as we call it: to fire weapons.

“That needs to be very carefully controlled and needs to be legal and needs to be bound by policies.”

Maj Gen Cole is a member of the Army Board, leading on information strategy, capability and services in all aspects of the Army’s activities. His scope includes command support, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance, developing future capabilities, modernising the British Army’s cyber and electromagnetic activity, and the better exploitation of data.

The CIO discussed the British Army’s Land Cyber Programme, and the introduction of 13 Signals Regiment as a specialist cyber unit.

“”We see the cyber domain is being an entirely central part of a modern armed force, and we must be able to defend ourselves in that environment,” he said. “And that could be whether it’s delivered over the IP or whether things are delivered in attacking us over the electromagnetic spectrum.

“We need to make sure that our technologies are robust enough to deal with electromagnetic attack.

“We need to be able to survey the spectrum. We need to be able to deliver electronic attack against an adversary’s electronic systems as well, so there’s this game of measure and countermeasure, which is pretty normal for armies to be thinking about.

“The other thing I’d say about our cyber program is, it’s also very much a people-orientated program. It’s not just about the technology.

“We very recently announced the creation of 13 Signal Regiment, and that’s a regiment that has some history going back to being a specialist wireless group in the Second World War.

“And what we’ve been able to do is recreate 13 Signals Regiment for the modern day. And that has inside it deployable cyber protection teams are deployable into theatres operation.”

[Watch British Army CIO Jonathan Cole’s CIO Town Hall Live session]