British troops Harry Potter-style ‘invisibility cloak’ could be breaching the Geneva Conventions

British troops have been testing a Harry Potter-style ‘invisibility cloak’ that makes them disappear on the battlefield. However, a military lawyer has warned that this could breach the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war.

According to ex-air commodore Bill Boothby, who previously worked as the deputy director of the UK’s Royal Air Force legal services, hiding weapons from view and disguising fighter jets could well breach the universally agreed rules of armed conflict.

Researchers from the Iowa State University recently published a paper in Nature that describes a new material that can suppress radar waves up to 75%. The scientists embedded split ring resonators containing Galinstan in silicon sheets, creating an invisibility cloak that is capable of hiding a fighter jet from radar, at least in theory.

Galinstan is a metal alloy that becomes liquid at room temperature and isn’t as toxic as mercury, which acts similarly. The rings create electric inductors and the gaps create electric capacitors, resulting a resonator is capable of trapping and suppressing radar waves.

When an object is covered in this material, radar waves are suppressed from all angles and directions, though it’s not a technology that’s 100% effective just yet.

“A 3D illustration of a metasurface skin cloak made from an ultrathin layer of nanoantennas (gold blocks) covering an arbitrarily shaped object. Light reflects off the cloak (red arrows) as if it were reflecting off a flat mirror.”

While basic cloaking technology exists already, Boothby believes that the next generation of improvements could get armies and air forces into territory that’s technically illegal.

“Conventional camouflage aimed, for example, at causing the enemy to blend into the background, is lawful and bending light might be regarded simply as a technologically sophisticated way of achieving that outcome,” he told The Guardian. However, if camouflage is used by soldiers and vehicles to pretend to be non-combatants, that could be a problem.

Also forbidden is the misuse of enemy, UN, protective or neutral signs, and flags and symbols. Those involved in combat are obliged to wear a fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance and to carry arms openly – conditions that could be violated as ‘invisibility cloak’ technology is developed further.

In his new book, Weapons and the Law of Armed Conflict, Boothby explains, “A combatant whose weapon is rendered invisible by its coating is arguably not complying with the minimal requirements [of the Conventions].”

Adaptiv camouflage system, which is currently developed by US-based company, Bae Systems (whose slogan appears to be “If the enemy cannot see you, he cannot fire at you!”) is one of the technologies under scrutiny from Boothby.

This system can make a vehicle match the same heat pattern and effectively become invisible by picking up infrared readings of the background surroundings. Or the system can be used to turn a tank into something that looks like a civilian car on enemy radars, which again might not fit into the rules of war laid down by the Geneva Conventions.

In his book, Boothby also points towards the problem of killer drones that can work without any kind of human intervention. He says that these types of weapons should remain legal, as long as there are human supervisors present who can make calls between civilian and military targets. However, during combat, the supervisor’s workload should be low enough to “ensure that proper decisions are made.”

“An outright ban of autonomy in weapon systems is premature and inappropriate, difficult to enforce and perhaps easy to circumvent,” he told The Guardian. “Existing law should be applied to this as to any other technology in warfare.”

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