Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) are weapons system that, once activated, require little to no human action in order to take carry out an objective. LAWS often uses computer algorithms and sensor systems to identify a target and use available weapons against it (CRS Report). The general definition of LAWS covers a wide variety of weapons, and levels of autonomy can range from partially to completely autonomous. Lawfare defines an autonomous weapon as “weapons that can select, detect and engage targets with little to no human intervention.”
At a basic level, all of this seems cool and innovative, but is it actually a good idea to develop, produce, and deploy LAWS as part of our military strategy? Is this technological innovation for its own sake—innovation that carries with it complex international implications?
However, LAWS have complex implications and potential consequences when they are used.
When LAWS make mistakes, target innocent civilians, or otherwise malfunction, who is ultimately responsible for the consequences? If an autonomous weapon indiscriminately kills civilians because of a corrupted algorithm, who is held responsible for the breach in international law? The military deploying the weapon, the potentially civilian corporations who built the code, and the contractors who produced and tested the weapon all potentially hold responsibility. Unlike a drone—which has a dedicated military operator dictating its actions—autonomous weapons may not have direct military operators, muddling the lines of responsibility and damaging oversight and accountability.
Autonomous weapons are also vulnerable to software breaches or hacks. Like any other technology, LAWS have vulnerabilities. According to Human Rights Watch, LAWS software is vulnerable to breaches, as malicious actors attempt to corrupt or even take control of adversarial LAWS and change their algorithms to target friendly groups, including its own personnel/military or civilians.
Autonomous weapons in theory sound like innovations that can limit mistakes and lower casualties in warfare. However, before these systems enter the conventional theater, its vulnerabilities and weaknesses must be considered.