International Law: LOAC

New CNAS Program on Autonomous Weapons

By Matthew Waxman
Sunday, October 26, 2014, 9:56 PM

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) last week announced a new project on “Ethical Autonomy.” (This is a topic on which Ken and I have written, most recently in a piece co-authored with Daniel Reisner titled “Adapting the Law of Armed Conflict to Autonomous Weapon Systems.”)

CNAS’s description of the project is below. The website has a very rich and helpful bibliography of materials and set of links to materials on the topic. I recommend watching closely what comes out of this program, because CNAS has such strong links through its leadership and fellows to the U.S. Defense Department. One of the directors of this new program, Paul Scharre, led the DoD working group that drafted the Department’s Directive 3000.09, establishing policies on autonomy in weapon systems.

Here’s an excerpt from the program’s description:

Information technology is driving rapid increases in the autonomous capabilities of unmanned systems, from self-driving cars to factory robots, and increasingly autonomous unmanned systems will play a significant role in future conflicts as well. The prospect of increased autonomy in weapons systems raises challenging legal, moral, ethical, policy and strategic stability issues. Nation-states and activists in the United States and abroad are already debating how advances in autonomy will influence warfare – and what, if anything, should be done. Activists have launched a “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots,” comprised of 53 non-governmental organizations. In May of 2013, state parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons held initial discussions on autonomous weapons, and future discussions are likely.

Governments and militaries are only beginning to grapple with how to address the challenges and opportunities associated with increased autonomy. Technology is moving fast in this area. Few states have guidelines on how autonomy should be included in future weapons systems, with the United States a notable exception.

The project on Ethical Autonomy will examine the legal, moral, ethical, policy and strategic stability dimensions of increased autonomy in future weapon systems. The goal of CNAS’ Ethical Autonomy project is to help states, activists, academics and militaries grapple with the challenging issues of autonomy in future weapons. This dialogue is necessary to ensure an appropriate balance between ethical and strategic stability considerations, technological opportunities and future warfighting needs.