Report to Congress on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems

April 21, 2021 8:44 AM

The following is the April 19, 2021 Congressional Research Service report, International Discussions Concerning Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems.

From the report

Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), or weapons designed to independently select and engage targets without the need for manual human control, could enable military operations in communications-degraded or -denied environments where traditional systems may not be able to operate. LAWS are not yet in widespread development. However, as technology advances—particularly artificial intelligence (AI)—a larger number of countries may consider developing and operating LAWS. This could hold potential implications for congressional oversight, defense investments, military concepts of operations, treaty-making, and the future of warfare.

As has been the case throughout history, incorporation of new technology into weapons systems creates a number of potential legal, ethical, strategic, and operational problems. For this reason, some members of the international community seek through international discussions to constrain—if not ban—LAWS.

What Are LAWS? 

Definitions. No single, universally accepted definition of LAWS is used in international discussions. However, Department of Defense Directive 3000.09, which establishes U.S. policy on autonomy in weapons systems, defines LAWS as “weapon system[s] that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.” This definition’s principal characteristic is the role of the human operator with regard to target selection and engagement decisions.

Other countries such as the United Kingdom, however, have grounded their definition of LAWS on different characteristics, in particular the technological sophistication of the weapon system, such that LAWS are considered to be weapon systems capable of human-level cognition. Still others do not believe that a definition of LAWS is required—or desirable—for international discussions. Despite these differences, most parties to the LAWS discussions generally agree that the defining features of LAWS include full autonomy (no manual human control of the system) and the potential to produce lethal effects.

Status. Although the pursuit of LAWS is not yet widespread, some analysts have argued that Israel’s Harpy loitering munition—which the weapon’s manufacturer, IAI, describes as being fully autonomous—qualifies. Israel has exported the Harpy to Chile, China, India, South Korea, and Turkey. Similarly, former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has noted that Chinese manufacturer Ziyan has advertised a fully autonomous system, the Blowfish A3 helicopter drone, which it has reportedly exported to the Middle East. In addition, according to a report by the Defense Innovation Board, the United States developed LAWS during the 1980s but no longer has LAWS in its inventory.

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