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Autonomy in weapon systems

Predator drone in Iraq, 2008
Predator drone takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq, 2008. Photo: Everett Historical

Since 2013, the governance of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) has been discussed under the framework of the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The discussion remains, however, at an early stage as most states are still in the process of understanding the concrete aspects and implications of increasing autonomy in weapon systems. To support states in their reflection, and more generally to contribute to more concrete and structured discussions on LAWS at the CCW, SIPRI launched a research project in February 2016 that looks at the development of autonomy in military systems in general and in weapon systems in particular.  

The project 'Mapping the development of autonomy in weapon systems’ was designed based on the assumption that efforts to develop concepts and practical measures for monitoring and controlling LAWS will remain premature without a better understanding of (1) the technological foundations of autonomy, (2) the current applications and capabilities of autonomy in existing weapon systems and (3) the technological, socio-economical, operational and political factors that are currently enabling or limiting its advances. Its aim, in that regard, is to provide CCW delegates and the interested public a ‘reality check on autonomy’ with a mapping exercise that will answer a series of fundamental questions:

(a) What is autonomy, how does it work and how is it created?

(b) What are the underlying technologies and where are they available or being developed?

(c) What types of autonomous applications are found in existing and forthcoming weapon systems?

(d) What are the capabilities of weapons that include some level of autonomy in the target cycle, how are they used or intended to be used and what are the principles or rules that govern their use?

(e) What are the trends that fuel or limit the advance of autonomy in weapon systems?

The findings of the project will be presented in a report in early 2017.

The project is supported by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.

Research staff

Dr Vincent Boulanin is a Researcher on emerging military and security technologies.