Leading military lawyer tells refinements of technology already used on stealth bombers could breach international laws

Invisibility shawls and other future advances in military camouflage techniques could violate the Geneva conventions, a top military lawyer has warned.

Refinements to new technologies that are already used on stealth bombers could breach compliance with international laws governing armed conflict if equipment is disguised or soldiers weapons are conceal, according to Bill Boothby, a former air commodore and deputy director of RAF legal services.

Scientists and military contractors are expending tens of millions of pounds researching methods for generating effective invisibility through more sophisticated metamaterials substances designed to assimilate or bend light and/ or radar waves in order to conceal approaching aircraft or troops.

The US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency( Darpa) has been one of the major funders of metamaterial science, triggering excitable comparisons with Harry Potters fictional invisibility shawl. Last year the US army announced it was planning to test prototype metamaterial uniforms.

Such chameleon-style technology is not entirely new. B2 stealth bombers first went into service with the US air force in the late 1980 s and took part in air raids on Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Their narrow profile, radar-absorbing paint and deflectors are intended to induce them virtually invisible to enemy radar.

In Weapons and the Law of Armed Conflict, a comprehensive survey of emerging defense technologies published this month by Oxford University Press, Boothby highlights difficulties further technological success could pose.

Patented Adaptiv technology[ was established by BAE Systems in Sweden] uses cameras on-board the target, such as an armoured vehicle, to pick up infra-red reads of the background scenery, he notes.

The same background pattern heat signature is then projected onto a series of hexagonal pixels mounted on the target that can change temperature very rapidly to match the surroundings.

As a result, an object can be made to disappear into the background for an observer utilizing an infrared sensor; it can also be used to mimic the infrared read of a different vehicle, so a tank looks like a civilian automobile, for example.

Under article 37 of the 1949 Geneva conventions, ruses such as camouflage, decoys, mock operations and misinformation are all permitted.

Conventional camouflage, Boothby suggests, aimed, for example, at causing the foe to blend into the background, is lawful and bending illuminate might be regarded simply as a technologically sophisticated way of achieving that outcome.

But if camouflage is used to pretend to be a non-combatant in order to deceive the foe and thereby to cause death, Boothby tells, it could be prohibited under the Geneva convention clause entitled prohibited under perfidy.

Similarly, camouflage that involves misuse of foe, UN, protective, or neutral signs, flags and insigniums is banned. Wearing an invisibility uniform might, it is suggested, additionally breach a fighters obligation to have a fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance and to carry arms openly.

A combatant whose weapon is rendered invisible by its coating is arguably not complying with the minimal requirements[ of carrying a weapon openly ], he states.

Boothby used to run the government division responsible for ensuring that freshly acquired weapons conform to the UKs international humanitarian law obligations.

He also points out that the ban on incapacitating chemical agents under the Chemical Weapons Convention is preventing development of non-lethal gases that could be used safely in anti-terrorist hostage operations such as the 2002 Moscow theater siege.

A number of states are undertaking research in this area, either with a view to employing the technology or to arise countermeasures, he said.

The stated posture of the UK government is that the developing, production, retention, acquisition, or utilize of incapacitating chemical agents for military purposes is proscribed.

On development of autonomous weapons systems capable of identifying and assaulting targets without human intervention, beyond the capability of the present generation of drones, Boothby takes the view that these killer robots are unlikely to raise international weapons statute concerns.

Human Right Watch and others have called for a ban on the autonomous weapons systems but Boothby believes as long as there is a human capable of supervising targeting decisions made by machines and overriding them if they fail to distinguish between civilian and military targets they should remain legal.

Such systems should only be permitted if the human supervisors workload is low enough to ensure that proper decisions are create, he notes. That qualification means swarms of small drones a potential future utilize of remotely piloted aircraft may pose legal problems since they could be too numerous to be monitored adequately.

An outright forbidding of autonomy in weapon systems is premature and inappropriate, difficult to enforce and perhaps easy to circumvent, Boothby tells. Existing statute should be applied to this as to any other technology in warfare.

Boothbys book also considers the implications of military advances in the use of nanotechnology, lasers, expanding bullets, human improvement technologies and outer space weapons.

Outer space is of critical importance for numerous vital functions in the modern world, he points out. In the military context, these include[ guidance for] anti-ballistic missile operations, long-range accuracy ten-strike and ground-based mid-course missile defence missions, intelligence, and communications activities. It therefore seems likely that outer space will become a focus for future conflict.

There is virtually no treaty law governing conflict in space apart from the 1967 outer space treaty, which states that all uses of outer space must comply with international law – implying any warfare should be conducted as it is on Earth.

Hostilities in outer space seem likely to involve the direct assault of space assets such as spacecrafts utilizing kinetic or cyber weapons, electronic assault in the form of jamming or spoofing, laser blind, and electromagnetic pulse assault, Boothby remarks.

Customary law prohibition of weapons that are indiscriminate by nature may have relevance to outer space weapons.

Weapons designed to create a cloud of debris that continued circling countries around the world might hence be deemed illegal on the ground of being indiscriminate.

Read more: www.theguardian.com