Arms Control for AWS: 2016 and beyond

Posted on 07 December 2016 by Frank Sauer

After three informal meetings of experts, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, during its Fifth Review Conference taking place from 12 to 16 December 2016 in Geneva, will decide on how to continue work on arms control for autonomous weapon systems. Below is a preview to an article published in the October 2016 issue of Arms Control Today, outlining the perspectives for future AWS arms control.

Sauer, Frank 2016: Stopping ‘Killer Robots’: Why Now Is the Time to Ban Autonomous Weapons Systems, in: Arms Control Today 46 (8): 8-13.

Click here to read the full article.

NEW: Click here for the BRF file of the full article

[F]our possible outcomes can be predicted for the CCW process. The first would be a legally binding and preventive multilateral arms control agreement derived by consensus in the CCW and thus involving the major stakeholders, the outcome referenced as “a ban.” Considering the growing number of states-parties calling for a ban and the large number of governments calling for meaningful human control and expressing considerable unease with the idea of autonomous weapons systems, combined with the fact that no government is openly promoting their development, this seems possible. It would require mustering considerable political will. Verification and compliance for a ban, as well as for weaker restrictions, would then require creative arms control solutions. After all, with full autonomy in a weapons system eventually coming down to merely flipping a software switch, how can one tell if a specific system at a specific time is not operating autonomously? A few arms control experts are already wrapping their heads around these questions.


The second outcome would be restrictions short of a ban. The details of such an agreement are impossible to predict, but it is conceivable that governments could agree, for example, to limit the use of autonomous weapons systems, such as permitting their use against materiel only.

The third would be a declaratory, nonbinding agreement on best practices. Such a code of conduct would likely emphasize compliance with existing international humanitarian law and rigorous weapons review processes, in accordance with Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.

Finally, there may be no tangible result, perhaps with one of the technologically leading countries setting a precedent by fielding autonomous weapons systems. That would certainly prompt others to follow, fueling an arms race. In light of some of the most advanced standoff weapons, such as the U.S. Long Range Anti-Ship Missile or the UK Brimstone, each capable of autonomous targeting during terminal flight phase, one might argue that the world is already headed for such an autonomy arms race.

Implementing autonomy, which mainly comes down to software, in systems drawn from a vibrant global ecosystem of unmanned vehicles in various shapes and sizes is a technical challenge, but doable for state and nonstate actors, particularly because so much of the hardware and software is dual use. In short, autonomous weapons systems are extremely prone to proliferation. An unchecked autonomous weapons arms race and the diffusion of autonomous killing capabilities to extremist groups would clearly be detrimental to international peace, stability, and security.

This underlines the importance of the current opportunity for putting a comprehensive, verifiable ban in place. The hurdles are high, but at this point, a ban is clearly the most prudent and thus desirable outcome. After all, as long as no one possesses them, a verifiable ban is the optimal solution. It stops the currently commencing arms race in its tracks, and everyone reaps the benefits. A prime goal of arms control would be fulfilled by facilitating the diversion of resources from military applications toward research and development for peaceful purposes—in the fields of AI and robotics no less, two key future technologies.

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