SMA hosted a speaker session with Dr. Paul Scharre (Vice President and Director of Studies, Center for a New American Security [CNAS]; Author of Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War) as part of its SMA General Series.
The use of autonomous weapons systems is frequently debated by countries’ leadership, military personnel, and scholars because of its potentially destructive capabilities. However, this is partially a result of a frequent misconception that autonomous weapons systems have no human control, Dr. Scharre explained. Even fully autonomous weapons have some human input and monitoring. Nonetheless, fully autonomous weapons systems—such as the IAI Harpy—can make some attack decisions on their own. These fully autonomous weapons systems’ decisions have the potential to cross legal, ethical, and policy boundaries before an operator intervenes.
Dr. Scharre added that autonomous weapons systems are becoming more prevalent with around 30 countries possessing at least semi-autonomous weapons systems. Even though some tasks will likely always be reserved for human operators, autonomous weapons systems are forcing government and military leaders to evaluate the a) legal, b) ethical, and c) policy barriers to their use.
There are no legal restraints on the use of fully autonomous weapons, Dr. Scharre explained. This is because there was, historically, an assumption that a human operator would be making decisions for the technology. An example of what may be considered an unlawful use of an autonomous weapons system is a strike that causes unnecessary pain and suffering for enemy combatants or civilians. Furthermore, it may be unethical for a machine to decide when to lethally strike human targets. The potential for flash wars between countries being instigated by autonomous weapons is also a concern. Countries pursuing autonomous weapons will likely not be restricted by global policy in the future due to the slow legislative process. However, several countries and non-governmental humanitarian organizations are currently pushing for global legislation to limit the use of autonomous weapons, Dr. Scharre stated.