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Some legal challenges posed by remote attack

30-06-2012 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 886, by William Boothby


Attacking from a distance is nothing new, but with the advent of certain new technologies, attacks can be undertaken in which the attacker remains very remote from the scene where force will be employed. This article analyses the legal issues raised by attacks employing, respectively, remotely piloted vehicles, autonomous attack technologies, and cyber capabilities. It considers targeting law principles and rules, including distinction, discrimination, proportionality, and the precautions rules, observes that they all apply to remote attack and proceeds to explore the challenges that arise from implementing the legal requirements. Due note is taken of states’ legal obligation to review new weapons, methods and means of warfare, an obligation that reinforces the view that existing law will provide the prism through which these new attack technologies must be evaluated by states. The article then discusses how notions of liability apply in relation to remote attack, and considers whether it is depersonalization rather than remoteness in attack that is the critical legal issue.

Keywords: remote attack, remotely piloted vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cyber attack, autonomous attack, legal review of new weapons, means or method of warfare, liability.


Dr William Boothby retired in July 2011 as Deputy Director of Legal Services (Royal Air Force) in the rank of Air Commodore. His doctoral thesis on Weapons and the Law of Armed Conflict was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 2009 and his second book, The Law of Targeting, was published by OUP in August 2012.