The Burgeoning Arms Race in Lethal Autonomous Weapons

The many obstacles facing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, alongside the recent demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the foreboding prospects surrounding New START, all contribute to a warranted level of high international concern surrounding the future of nuclear arms control.  These treaties have served as the basic firewall preventing unbridled nuclear proliferation and their fragmentation is alarming.  Behind this clamorous forefront, however, looms the nascent phase of yet another dangerous arms race quietly circumventing mass popular scrutiny – killer robots!  As fantastical as such a notion may at first appear, the development of autonomous weapons systems (AWS) capable of selecting and engaging targets independent of human operators is well underway with the major players – the U.S., China and Russia – ramping up their spending in this novel military domain.  Factions in Europe are voicing their concern, but Washington and its AWS competitors show no signs to date of slowing their acceleration down this uncharted path.  This article maps the current lay of the AWS terrain and traces an emergent European initiative to curb an all-out AWS arms race.  

Current State of Affairs

Advancement of AWS technology is picking up pace as combined global spending on military robotics is anticipated to reach $16.5 billion by 2025.  Successive waves of innovation are reducing the role of human operators in the control loop, with the fully autonomous robotic capacity for target planning and mission execution in sight.  The U.S., for instance, the world leader in AWS development, launched the Sea Hunter in 2016 – an autonomous 132-foot trimaran designed to cruise the oceans in search of adversary submarines and report their coordinates to command centers.  The next step underway is to program Sea Hunters with sophisticated algorithms enabling them to autonomously carry out attacks without specific operator greenlighting.  With assets like these, Pentagon officials foresee a future of naval operations in which reliance on large fleets of unmanned, AWS-equipped seacraft reduces the number of crewed vessels deployed.

Rising competitors are following behind in hot pursuit.  In 2017, China introduced its Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Plan with an eye toward enhancing AWS capability and achieving global supremacy in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030.  As part of this broader effort, it projects investment of $4.5 billion in autonomous drone technology by 2021 and is actively developing mass synchronized drone swarming technology to overwhelm enemy conventional forces on the battlefield.  Additionally, Russia has been particularly ardent about its future AWS ambitions.  It presently has multiple military robotics initiatives in place, with an objective of ensuring thirty percent of its combat power be partially or fully autonomous by 2030.  With an enormous combined defense budget, second only to the U.S., and cutting-edge development infrastructure in industrial AI and robotics, the EU has the potential to become a major competitor in the AWS realm as well.  The mixed sentiments of its member states have thus far held it back, but this could easily change as its drone spending increases.

The present AWS trajectory is leading toward ever intensifying competition among the leading powers who presently monopolize the technology.  The wider spread of AWS capability is also all but inevitable given declining production costs and proliferation of technical know-how through three-dimensional printing and other means.  Recognizing the legal and ethical problems of machines deciding when and whom to kill, coupled with the eventuality of expanding availability of such machines, a collection of non-governmental organizations formed the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in 2012 to seek an international AWS convention.  Discussions have been ongoing in the United Nations as the number of countries endorsing arms control measures grows, but the major AWS competitors remain committed to unencumbered development of their lethal robotic arsenals.  

European Initiative

Concern about the future of AWS has led to a growing initiative in Europe, which is aimed at addressing the potential perils of independent-minded robotic weaponry.  In August 2018, Austria joined a call by Brazil and Chile to ban AWS, with the Vatican following suit.  At the sub-national level, an overwhelming majority of members of the European Parliament endorsed international negotiations on a legally-binding AWS prohibition.  In a noteworthy step building on these developments, German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, included the ‘need for rules for autonomous weapons systems’ as the first of his four-part German Initiative on arms control in March 2019.  In April 2020, the German Foreign Ministry hosted the Berlin Forum on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, at which Mr. Maas stressed his position that AWS constitute ‘a red line that [the international community] should never cross.’

The German Foreign Ministry’s arms control initiative, to the extent it supports the outright prohibition of AWS, appears in line with public opinion polling in Germany and a number of other EU member states, which confirms widespread popular opposition to autonomous weapons.  However, it is not clear exactly what the “rules” Mr. Maas refers to imply.  Germany, along with France, Sweden and Italy, currently allots defense budget funds to AWS-related development and seems to be leaning toward the emerging EU position that some intermediary chord between proscription and regulation might be struck.  Thus, the early fault lines between a preference for milder regulation held by EU elites and the mass popular position adopted by Austria and the Holy See favoring a complete ban are beginning to take shape.    

Future Prospects

The EU is actively struggling internally to define its position, all the while assuming a leadership role in driving international dialogue on AWS arms control forward.  The U.S., China and Russia, on the other hand, remain committed to the increasing autonomization of their arsenals, paying mere lip service to the guidance of international law and notions of future arms control.  Accordingly, any substantive progress in the United Nations in applying the existing Convention on Conventional Weapons to AWS, let alone negotiating a new AWS-specific treaty, has been and continues to be stymied.  Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows of the conspicuous international nuclear debate, killer robots steadily maintain their relatively quiet march toward reality.

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