Defense and Military Policy: Autonomous Weapons Systems
The prospect for weapons systems to become imbued with artificial autonomy is being realized by the accelerating advances in the fields of computer science and robotics today. Rather than merely marking another incremental stage in the development of lethal technologies, the incorporation of autonomy into weapons systems potentially heralds a new era of armed conflict replete with its own set of challenges and possibilities.The capacity for autonomous weapons systems to operate independent from direct human control places such systems in a distinctly separate category from all preceding forms of military equipment. From the arrow to the ballistic missile, weapons have been passive artifacts directly manipulated by human beings to exert violence and cause injury and damage. Insofar as autonomous weapons systems are capable of deploying potentially lethal force itself, or significantly influencing the conditions of such deployment, autonomous weapons systems subsist between the existing legal categories of “weapons” and “combatants.” As such, the prospect of autonomous weapons systems introduces significant law and policy challenges that are only just beginning to be debated. This entry provides an overview first of the definitional scope and categorization of the subject matter before moving to provide examples of currently existing technologies. It will then highlight some factors that spur the development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems before providing a sketch of the debate. This entry concludes with an analysis of the difficult issues of responsibility and accountability raised by autonomous weapons systems.