Autonomous Weapon Systems: The Military's Smartest Toys?

"We are standing at the cusp of a momentous upheaval in the character of warfare, brought about by the large-scale infusion of robotics into the armed forces."

If the enthusiasts are to be believed, we are standing at the cusp of a momentous upheaval in the character of warfare, brought about by the large-scale infusion of robotics into the armed forces. In the future, many proponents of the “robotics revolution” argue, a variety of military functions—from simple logistical tasks to the application of lethal force—will be performed by machines acting more or less autonomously, without any direct interference from human operators. Human-rights groups and other critics agree that such a change might be in the offing—and argue that it must be urgently reined in before machines devoid of any sense of moral reasoning are given the capacity to make unaccountable, independent decisions that lead to the taking of human lives.

While it is important to consider the implications of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) from a variety of perspectives, moral and legal standpoints—forcefully articulated by activists often driven more by “righteous indignation” than by a penchant for detached analysis—currently dominate the debate. Meanwhile, their strategic consequences generally remain underexplored and are, at best, alluded to nebulously.

But what might the effect of such autonomous weapon systems pose for military stability? Will these systems increase the likelihood that militarized rivalries lead to destabilizing arms competitions? Will they undermine the purpose of deterrence by creating incentives for actors involved in a crisis to strike first? And will they contribute to situations in which hostilities, once joined, quickly get out of hand?

If the impact of AWS on arms-race stability, crisis stability and the prospects of escalation is unproblematic, then they would tend to support military rationales for developing and procuring such systems. If, on the other hand, their impact is found to be deleterious, this should provide decision makers with an added incentive to carefully weigh the potential advantages of such systems against their negative consequences for national security.

Autonomous Warfare: A Likely Prospect

Military forces that rely on armed robots to select and destroy certain types of targets without human intervention are no longer the stuff of science fiction. In fact, swarming anti-ship missiles that acquire and attack targets based on pre-launch input, but without any direct human involvement—such as the Soviet Union’s P-700 Granit—have been in service for decades. Offensive weapons that have been described as acting autonomously—such as the UK’s Brimstone anti-tank missile and Norway’s Joint Strike Missile—are also being fielded by the armed forces of Western nations. And while governments deny that they are working on armed platforms that will apply force without direct human oversight, sophisticated strike systems that incorporate significant features of autonomy are, in fact, being developed in several countries.

In the United States, the X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) has been a definite step in this direction, even though the Navy is dodging the issue of autonomous deep strike for the time being. The UK’s Taranis is now said to be “merely” semi-autonomous, while the nEUROn developed by France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland is explicitly designed to demonstrate an autonomous air-to-ground capability, as appears to be case with Russia’s MiG Skat. While little is known about China’s Sharp Sword, it is unlikely to be far behind its competitors in conceptual terms.

In light of these developments, a future in which armed platforms execute some missions and attack some types of targets autonomously is certainly imaginable—perhaps even likely. What is beginning to take shape in the air will also be true of other operational environments. What, then, will be the strategic consequences of the inclusion of such systems into advanced force structures, as far as military stability between states and potentially even between states and nonstate actors is concerned?

Wrecking the Balance