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International Law And Military Use Of Unmanned Maritime Systems




This study examined the international law and military use of Unmanned Maritime Systems. Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS) comprise an important subcategory of Unmanned military devices more broadly. This study tries to achieve the following aim through the following objectives which include examining the key legal issues surrounding the use of Unmanned Maritime Systems for military purposes, accessing the legal status of UMSs, alongside the rights and obligations that the status may entail and clarifying the legal parameters and content of the various legal regimes affecting the UMS use for military purposes etc. This work was based on doctrinal method of research. Hence the research is conducted in libraries and internet. The statement of international legal principles depends on this method of research. References were made to few decisions in other jurisdictions, articles, journals and so on as secondary source where necessary. While much of the normative debate concerning the use of unmanned aerial and land-based devices applies equally to those employed on or under water, UMS present unique challenges in understanding the application of the existing law. This study summarized the technological state of art before considering, in turn, the legal status of UMS, particularly under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the regulation of their use under the law of naval warfare. It is not clear if UMS enjoy status as ships under UNCLOS; even if they do, it is unlikely that they can be classified as warships. Nevertheless, their lawful use is not necessarily precluded in either peacetime or armed conflict. This study recommended an amendment to Annex IV to clarify that UMSs are exempt from radio communications. This would also help mariners clearly understand an important difference between a UMS and a manned vessel.

1.9  Operational Definition of Terms

 Articles: These are commentaries relating to a piece of work.

Charter: A charter is the grant of authority or rights, stating that the grantor formally recognizes the prerogative of the recipient to exercise the right specified.

Child Rights:  Child’s Rights are a subset of human rights, with particular attention to the rights of special protection afforded to minors.

Conduct of Hostilities: Conduct of Hostilities regulates and limits the methods and means of warfare used by parties to an armed conflict. It aims to strike a balance between legitimate military action and humanitarian objective of reducing human suffering, particularly among civilians.

Convention: A convention is a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards, norms, social norms, or criteria, often taking the form of a custom. In a social context, a convention may retain the character of an “unwritten law” of customs.

Covenant: An agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.

Human Rights Law: Human rights by definition are the inalienable rights to which all human beings are entitled, irrespective of race, nationality or membership to any particular social group.

International Humanitarian Law: International Humanitarian Law can be defined as a branch of international law limiting the use of violence in around conflicts.

International law: International law, also known as public international law of nations is the set of rules, norms and standards generally accepted in relations between nations.

Juristic works: These are legal philosophy and analogy gotten by comparing the different legal systems of the world. They also analyze the historical perspectives of the different legal systems of the world.

Maritime: Maritime is something nautical or related to seaborne trade or naval matters.

Military: A military is a heavily armed, highly organized force primarily intended for warfare, also known collectively as armed forces. It is typically officially authorized and maintained by a sovereign state with its members identifiable by their distinct military uniform.

Naval Warfare: Naval warfare is a human combat in and on the sea, ocean or any other battle space involving a major body of water such as a large lake or wide river.

Neutrality: This is the tendency not to side in a conflict (physical or ideological), which may not suggest neutral parties do not have a side or are not a side themselves. In Colloquial use, neutral can be synonymous with unbiased.

Norms: They are most commonly defined as rules and expectations that are socially enforced.

Surface vehicle – Displaces water at rest. Operates with near continuous contact with the surface of the water. Interface of the vehicle with the surface is a major design driver.

Treaties: These are binding rules to only states that are signatories to its terms and these states have the right to opt out at anytime.

Unmanned maritime systems (UMS): Unmanned vehicles that displace water at rest and can be categorized into two subcategories: unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) and unmanned surface vehicles (USV).

Unmanned Maritime Vehicles (UMVs): They are vehicles capable of controlled, self-propelled movement in water without any personnel.

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Unmanned surface vehicles (USVs): UMS that is self-propelled and operates with near continuous contact with the surface of the water, including conventional hull crafts, hydrofoils and semi-submersibles. (Source: Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2011-2036). Though “self-propelled” is not a component of the Roadmap’s definition, two workshop participants confirmed that self-propulsion is an essential feature of a USV. This is necessary to avoid confusion with the many scientific buoys, etc. that are currently floating. Although not specifically spelled out in the USV master plan, is implicitly assumed as a component of it.

Unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV): A self-propelled submersible whose operation is either fully autonomous (pre-programmed or real-time adaptive mission control) or under minimal supervisory control and is untethered except, possibly, for data links such as a fiber optic cable.

Unmanned: Capable of unmanned operation. Has varying degrees of autonomy.

 “Vessels”: (1) A craft for travelling on water, now usually one larger than an ordinary rowboat, a ship or boat.

(2) An Airship



 1.1   Background of the study

The term Unmanned Maritime System (UMS) refers to all systems, subsystems, associated components vehicles, equipment and logistics for the operation of Unmanned Vehicles. These vehicles can be operated on the surface or underwater and may be remotely operated, partially or fully autonomous.

UMS operations have largely consisted of a vehicle being programmed upon launch and embarking upon operations with the specific mission plan. Data was stored and transferred on completion of the mission.

A move towards more robotic centric vehicles is now visible.

Projects now include data exchange components for operating fleets of underwater or surface vehicles, data reporting, dynamic navigation and collaborative actions. To date, satellites have been generally only been used for Command and Control (C2) data exchange. There exists considerable scope for the integration of satellite communications, not just in the C2 functionality but in the real time transmission of mission data.

In January 2019, Singapore, Japan and South Korea announced their plans to use UMSs for activities such as surveillance, coastal border patrols, search and rescue, and mine detection. Such examples suggest that the difficult legal questions that UMSs raise will become more significant as use increases. The appeal of UMSs for maritime security purposes is clear. As Pedrozo has noted, “because they reduce risk to human life, unmanned systems are becoming the preferred alternative for dull, dirty or dangerous missions”

Moreover, UMSs can stay at sea for longer periods than vessels with crews, may expand the areas of operation and could potentially fill capacity gaps and reduce costs.

All of these features may prove advantageous to States as they consider what additional tools can be used to enhance maritime security, especially in relation to maritime domain awareness or surveillance, as well as in relation to law enforcement efforts. Thus, there is an expectation that UMSs will be used in peacetime maritime security operations,

But there is also room to consider how that use might be regulated under the existing legal architecture and where gaps or ambiguities might be revealed.


On 15 December 2016 Chinese forces seized an unmanned underwater vehicle being operated by a U.S. government vessel, the USNS Bowditch, 50 nautical miles from the Philippine coast in the South China Sea.

China did not make clear the legal basis for its actions, although statements attributed to the Chinese government referred to the ambiguity of the law surrounding the use and seizure of ‘drones’, as well as to repeated U.S. ‘reconnaissance’ in waters over which it stakes a claim.

In response, the U.S. government demanded the return of the device which it said had been ‘conducting routine operations in accordance with international law’ and which it claimed was a ‘sovereign immune vessel of the United States.

The USNS Bowditch incident was ultimately resolved swiftly and peacefully with the return of the device some five days later.

Yet, underlying it were legal issues such as the navigational rights and obligations of unmanned systems, their status under international law and whether they benefit from sovereign immunity as vessels or otherwise?

The legal regime relevant to UMSs is the regime used by navies for peacetime operations. The application of this regime has led to discussions about the status of UMSs as warships and their possible immunities.

Commentators have already canvassed the rights of navigation that might apply in relation to UMSs, including whether they enjoy the right of innocent passage and what might constitute “normal mode” in the context of transit passage.

These questions are pertinent to the deployment of UMSs for surveillance and other information-gathering exercises. Some analysis of the use of UMSs for intelligence gathering was triggered by the Chinese Navy’s seizure of the UMS launched from the USNS Bowditch in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) IN 2016.

However, our understanding of maritime security encompasses more than the peacetime operation of navies and extends to diverse law enforcement activities in response to crimes at sea.

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UMSs may be relevant in relation to law enforcement in two contexts. First, States may wish to deploy UMSs to enhance their law enforcement capabilities, especially in the detection of illicit activity at sea. That is evident in the declared use of UMSs by Singapore, Japan and South Korea mentioned above. Second, UMSs may be utilized by non-State actors to further their criminal activities. Remote-controlled vessels have already been used for terrorist purposes and it may be readily envisioned that smugglers will use UMSs as cost-efficient tools for transporting illicit goods at sea.

These different uses of UMSs prompt questions about the operation of international law and the extent that existing and future technology is accommodated within the international legal regime.

The use of unmanned systems, together with the possibility that autonomous unmanned systems are likely to come of age soon, has drawn widespread attention in the legal community. Much of this attention has centered on their use in combat. Of note are the vibrant and often emotive debates, surrounding the use of air and ground unmanned systems to conduct so-called ‘targeted killings’ and counter improvised explosive devices in populated areas, respectively.

Beyond these debates, the armed forces of many States are increasingly turning to unmanned systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes and for transportation and other aspect of military logistics.

The UMS, known as an “ocean glider,” was used by the Navy to gather oceanographic data in the region.

Chinese naval personnel seized the UMS within sight of Navy research vessel, USNS Bowdith, and despite protests by the United States, the Chinese did not return the UMS for several days.

A little over a year later, Houthi rebels reportedly seized another United States Navy (UMS off the coast of Yemen, although circumstances behind this second incident remain unclear.

These high profile incidents highlight important questions about the rights and obligations of unmanned systems vis-à-vis the international maritime agreements. Therefore, this study is carried out on the international law and military use of Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS).

 1.2   Statement of the problem

There has been little consideration of the legal issues raised by the growing use of unmanned maritime systems (UMS). This is certain to change, for although the operational use of the systems lags well behind that of their air and ground counterparts, in future maritime security operations and naval warfare their use will loom very large. For instance, UMSs will greatly expand the monitoring capability of law enforcement and naval forces during counter-piracy, counter-drug, counter-weapons of mass destruction proliferation and refugee operations. During wartime, they are particularly promising with respect to improving transparency of the maritime battlespace, enhancing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and anti-submarine and anti-mine warfare. And during both peacetime and periods of armed conflict, UMSs are likely to prove themselves invaluable in maintaining the security of the fragile sea lanes of communication upon which global economic prosperity depends.

The United States is currently the leader in the development and use of UMSs, heavy use is made of US doctrine and reference is often to its systems.

Other States are however, engaged in their own development and fielding programs, generally along the same lines as those pioneered by the United States.

As will become apparent, several important issues remain unsettled as a matter of international law. Therefore, subsequent State physical or verbal practice will be especially important with respect to clarifying the International Law and Military use of Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS).

1.3   Research Questions

     The purpose of this research will be realized through the following questions.

  1. What are the key legal issues surrounding the use of the Unmanned Maritime Systems for military purposes?
  2. What is the legal status of UMSs, alongside the rights and obligations that the status may entail?
  3. How does the law of naval warfare ad the law of neutrality govern UMS activities during international armed conflicts?
  4. What are the legal parameters and content of the various legal regimes affecting UMS use for military purposes?

1.4   Aim and Objectives

The main objective of the study is to examine the international law and military use of Unmanned Maritime System.

Specifically, the study will achieve the aim through the following objectives:

  1. Examine the key legal issues surrounding the use of the Unmanned Maritime Systems for military purposes.
  2. Access the legal status of UMSs, alongside the rights and obligations that the status may entail.
  3. Analyze how the law of naval warfare and the law of neutrality govern UMS activities during international armed conflicts; and
  4. Clarify the legal parameters and content of the various legal regimes affecting UMS use for military purposes.

1.5   Scope of the study

This study focused on the international law and military use of unmanned maritime systems. This study is restricted to the law applicable in international armed conflicts, as it is with respect to such conflicts that the law is most highly developed. That said, many of the legal norms discussed especially those regarding the conduct of hostilities, apply mutatis mutandis during non-international armed conflicts.

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 1.6   Significance of the Study

To address, albeit not fully resolved, the above research questions, this study assesses the possible interpretation of international law that may be applicable in different scenarios involving the use of Unmanned Maritime Systems. Consistent with the rules of treaty interpretation, regard must be had to the ordinary meaning of any treaty provision in its context and in the light of its object and purpose. In this regard, it is important to recall the position of the International Court of Justice that any treaty must be “interpreted and applied within the framework of the entire legal system prevailing at the time of the interpretation.” Thus, while we might be facing disruptive technology, commentators have argued that we are not facing disruptive international law.

What seems apparent is that shortcomings that exist in the international legal framework for maritime security are not obviated by the operation of UMSs, but rather the utility of the technology continues to be hampered by the operation of the law.

This study will also be relevant to researchers, academics, students and scholars that will be carrying out research related to this study. This study will therefore enrich the literature in this area.

 1.7   Research Methodology

This actually refers to the method adopted in the research work.

Basically, we have two methods of research, namely: Empirical and Doctrinal methods respectively.

Empirical Method: This method is based on observed and measured phenomena and derives knowledge from actual experience rather than from theory or belief.

Doctrinal Research Method: This refers to the use of analysis of legal propositions or legal concepts in research process. This method also includes legal concepts and principles of all kinds, like cases, statutes and rules.

This work however is based on doctrinal method of research. Hence the research is conducted in libraries and internet.

The statement of international legal principles depends on this method of research.

References are made to few decisions in other jurisdictions, articles, journals, and on as secondary sources where necessary.

1.8   Limitations of the Study: Limitations refers to various constraints and obstructions placed on or affecting the researcher. Despite the fact that the project topic is quite interesting with some relevant materials online, such as:

Network Issues And Power Supply: These posed a considerable challenge in searching for materials electronically, including shortage of funds to purchase data to source for these materials online.

New Topic: Owing to the fact that the topic is a new and fresh one for students, materials were quite limited in this area of study in the libraries.

The Global Pandemic And Lockdown: These caused delays in the completion of this work as it restricted the researcher’s movement towards sourcing for materials from different libraries on time.

However, notwithstanding, the various constraints and challenges faced by the researcher, this will not affect the substance and content of this work as the researcher will painstakingly ensure that the aim and objectives of this study are greatly achieved.

1.9   Structure of the Study: This research is divided into five chapters. Chapter one introduces the research, highlighting its aim and objectives and also stating its significant to the society.

Also, the limitations of the study and research methodology adopted by this writer are made manifest in this chapter.

Chapter two deals with the literature review which is sub-divided into three parts; the first part which is the conceptual framework defines common terms and issues on this area being researched.

The second part is the theoretical framework will explain different theories and principles on this field of study.

The third part which is the summary of literature which will identify areas which have not been made relevant or comprehensively studied in relation to international law and human right.

In the end, the points not covered by the various authors in their analysis will be identified and recommendations made for them.

Similarly chapter three will examine some of the legal and institutional frameworks regulating military use of unmanned maritime systems under the international law.

Also the provisions of some of these regulatory frameworks shall be scrutinized and possible shortcomings revealed for possible amendments.

Furthermore, chapter four will center itself on the in-depth discussion of the topic, international law and military use of unmanned maritime systems.

Chapter five of this project deals with the summary of findings made by the writer, followed by the possible recommendations on the way forward to the identified challenges.

The aim of this chapter is to examine the key legal issues surrounding the use of unmanned maritime systems for military purposes.

Finally, the chapter would end with the use of a conclusion drawn from a general overview of the work.

Pages:  120

Category: Project

Format:  Word & PDF         

Chapters: 1-5                                 

Material contains Table of Content, Abstract and References.


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