The United States' use of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), also known as ‘killer robots’, represents the growing conflict between military advantages and ethics, raising both human and national security concerns. Currently, the US has an insufficient policy restricting the use of autonomous weapons, and to ensure its international legitimacy, it must adopt a binding agreement prohibiting the development and proliferation of LAWS.
While there is no commonly agreed upon definition of LAWS, the term generally refers to any weapons that select and apply force to targets without human intervention. These weapons operate with sensors and software which detect ‘target profiles’ (height, weight, movement, shape of military vehicle, etc.) when employing force without manual human control of the system. The most common types of LAWS are antivehicle and anti-personnel mines, missile defense and sentry systems, and loitering munitions. The use of LAWS raises ethical, legal, and security concerns: LAWS relinquish life-and-death decision-making to software lacking moral agency, LAWS create legal ambiguity for humanitarian law without clear operators to take accountability for decisions, and LAWS create a security dilemma which bolsters the risk of proliferation and a twenty-first century arms race.
The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (UN CCW) aims to ban or restrict the use of LAWS under the premise that they cause unjust suffering. The UN Secretary General reiterated this call in 2023 and recommended that all states agree to a binding agreement to ban LAWS by 2026. There is currently no binding agreement on the banning of LAWS.
CURRENT US POLICY IS INSUFFICIENT
The Department of Defense (DoD) has issued directive 3000-09 which requires oversight processes for LAWS. Directive 3000-09 implements tests to software and hardware systems, senior-level review by high-ranking officials, and establishes the Autonomous Weapons System Working Group. The directive does not include policy on their proliferation. The most updated version of DoD Directive 3000-09 conflicts with widely supported international proposals for internationally agreed limits or a full-scale ban. The US does not currently support a ban on LAWS, though it participates in international discussions on the use of LAWS under the auspices of the UN CCW. The US currently has no government-wide policy on autonomous weapons systems or their administration in law enforcement, border control, or armed conflict.
STRATEGIC ADVANTAGE UNDERMINES SOFT POWER
The US’s stance on autonomous weapons has severe consequences for its international partnerships and alliances, and the topic is subject to domestic debate. The US, a leader of democracy and justice, undermines core values in exchange for a strategic military
advantage. The US’s failure to condemn the use of autonomous weapons signals hypocrisy to its allies. Without participation by the US in international conversations concerning arms control initiatives, meaningful policy will be stagnant. Additionally, the US’s proliferation of autonomous weapons has the potential to initiate a LAWS arms race with US competitors (China, Russia, and Iran) as well as allies (Israel, France, the UK, and South Korea). Citizens of the US also wish to see a ban on LAWS, with approximately 62% of respondents opposing their use.
Conversely, the use of LAWS proves more efficient than conventional weapons or troops. LAWS can react to incoming propelled grenades in less than one millisecond, a response time 250 times faster than humans are capable of. While development of autonomous weapons remains a focus for specialists, the ethical dilemma surrounding LAWS remains relevant. While offensive weapons lack moral judgement and responsibility, LAWS are able to select and kill with stunning accuracy. In one case, LAWS were able to assassinate an Iranian nuclear scientist without harming his wife inches away. Because LAWS operate using a target profile, they do not have the ability to sensor or interpret the difference between combatants and civilians2.
US MUST ADOPT REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
To address the ethical and legal challenges posed by autonomous weapons, it is essential that the US government establishes a binding framework for meaningful human control over the deployment of LAWS. The current policy fails in addressing the potential for an autonomous weapons arms race, and erodes both accountability and human control. These consequences will result in greater vulnerability to malware or cyber attacks, and reduced cooperation between the US and other states. In order to retain US soft power and set an example in the field of weapons development, the US must prioritize the preservation of human agency and autonomous weapons non proliferation, including both enemies and allies in this partnership.