By Brett Wilkins

The Chinese army has deployed an “improved” killer robot designed for ground combat.

The People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) recently announced that the Sharp Claw I unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), manufactured by China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), entered service on April 13. This was first reported by China Central Television 7 and was subsequently confirmed by the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command. Jane’s, the UK-based military news site, was among the first to report the development in the West.

According to Jane’s, Sharp Claw I is a tracked combat and reconnaissance robot weighing 120 kg. (265 lbs.) and measuring 70 cm (28 inches) in length, with an operational range of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). It can be carried in the cargo bay of the much larger Sharp Claw II UGV, and is designed primarily for use in remote areas unaccessible to human infantry. Sharp Claw II is a  6′ x 6′ wheeled, unmanned ground vehicle designed to execute combat reconnaissance, patrol, assault and transport duties.

Sharp Claw I is capable of detecting and attacking targets “in all weather conditions during the day and at night,” according to Norinco. It is armed with a light machine gun firing 7.62mm rounds. Norinco says the killer robot can operate autonomously.

First displayed as a prototype in air shows in 2014 and 2018, the operational Sharp Claw I has been fitted with numerous upgrades designed to improve its reconnaissance and killing abilities. These include an improved short-range electro-optical payload, machine vision, lighting suite and a refined magazine box and ammunition feed mechanism.

It is unclear how many of the killer robots the PLA has or is planning to deploy.

According to The National Interest, Sharp Claw isn’t the only killer robot system being deployed by the PLA. Another Chinese firm, Zhong Tian Zhi Khong Technology Holdings Company, recently demonstrated its Mule-200 UGV at the Unmanned System Exhibition and Conference 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in February. Mule-200 is a medium-sized multipurpose tracked vehicle designed to accompany human infantry and to transport supplies and ammunition. It can also be fitted with firearms, and its range and speed — 50 kilometers, 50 km/h (30 miles/30 mph) — are far superior to Sharp Claw’s.

In recent years, China has emerged as a world leader in the development of killer robots. In October 2018, Zeng Yi, a senior director at Norinco, declared in a speech that “in future battlegrounds, there will be no people fighting,” and that warfare dominated by autonomous weapons is “inevitable.”

In July 2017, China’s State Council issued the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (AIDP), which along with Made in China 2025 are the foundation of China’s AI strategy. According to the opening paragraphs of AIDP,

AI has become a new focus of international competition. AI is a strategic technology that will lead in the future; the world’s major developed countries are taking the development of AI as a major strategy to enhance national competitiveness and protect national security.

Last year, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper slammed China for developing unmanned aerial drones that can kill people without human oversight. It was a rather dubious rebuke coming from the US, a nation whose military has killed more foreign civilians than any other armed force in the world over the past 70 years, including thousands of people with unmanned drones, and which is the global leader in the development of killer robots.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, with whom Ethics In Tech is partnered, is among the leading international groups working to stop the proliferation of lethal autonomous weapons. The group believes that, if left unchecked, “the world could enter a destabilizing robotic arms race.”

“Replacing troops with machines could make the decision to go to war easier and shift the burden of conflict even further on to civilians,” the Campaign states. “Fully autonomous weapons would make tragic mistakes with unanticipated consequences that could inflame tensions.”

The Campaign calls for the retention of “meaningful human control over targeting and attack decisions by prohibiting development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons,” as well as “legislating the ban through national laws and by international treaty.” It also calls on “all technology companies and organizations as well as individuals working to develop artificial intelligence and robotics” to “pledge to never contribute to the development of fully autonomous weapons.”

Image credit: CCTV 7 screen grab, via Jane’s

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