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U.S. Statement on LAWS: Potential Military Applications of Advanced Technology
March 26, 2019

Potential Military Applications of Advanced Technology
Statement delivered by Charles Trumbull at the
First Session of the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS)
Geneva, March 25, 2019

Emerging autonomy-related technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, have remarkable potential to improve the quality of human life with applications such as driverless cars and artificial assistants. The use of autonomy-related technologies can even save lives, for example, by improving the accuracy of medical diagnoses and surgical procedures or by reducing the risk of car accidents. Similarly, the potential for these technologies to save lives in armed conflict warrants close consideration.

In particular, the United States believes that discussion of the possible options for addressing the humanitarian and international security challenges posed by emerging technologies in the area of LAWS must involve consideration of how these technologies can be used to enhance the protection of the civilian population against the effects of hostilities.

This is especially the case because “smart” weapons that use computers and autonomous functions to deploy force more precisely and efficiently have been shown to reduce risks of harm to civilians and civilian objects.

Existing State practice provides many examples of ways in which emerging, autonomous technologies could be used to reduce risks to civilians in armed conflict: (1) incorporating autonomous self-destruct, self-deactivation, or self-neutralization mechanisms; (2) increasing awareness of civilians and civilian objects on the battlefield; (3) improving assessments of the likely effects of military operations; (4) enhancing target identification, tracking, selection, and engagement; and (5) reducing the need for immediate fires in self-defense.

The U.S. working paper submitted to the GGE in April 2018, titled Humanitarian Benefits of Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous weapon Systems, CCW/GGE.1/2018/WP.4, discusses ways in which using emerging technologies can limit civilian casualties. I will highlight just a few of the examples from State practice discussed in that paper related to the GGE’s work.

First, emerging technologies can be used to increase military awareness of civilians and civilian objects. Civilian casualties can result from a lack of awareness of the presence of civilians on the battlefield due to the “fog of war.” For example, commanders might be unaware that civilians are in or near a military objective. Similarly, commanders might, in good faith, misidentify civilians as combatants – particularly when engaged in armed conflict against armed groups that go to great lengths to hide among the civilian population.

AI could help commanders increase their awareness of the presence of civilians and civilian objects on the battlefield by automating the processing and analysis of data.

One of the most ubiquitous and useful applications of AI involves the ability to search through large amounts of data to find relevant information quickly, such as through internet search engines. Companies are investing in AI to generate insights from “big data” with a view towards better serving their customers and increasing their profitability. Commanders may similarly have an overwhelming amount of information to consider during military operations, such as hours of video from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.

The U.S. Department of Defense is seeking to use AI to improve its analysis of video from ISR platforms. By using AI to identify objects of interest from imagery autonomously, analysts are able to search through larger quantities of data and focus on more sophisticated and important tasks requiring human judgment. One of the results of improving the efficiency and accuracy of intelligence processes could be to increase commanders’ awareness of the presence of civilians, objects under special protection such as cultural property and hospitals, and other civilian objects. This increased awareness could help commanders better assess the totality of the expected incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilianobjects from an attack, including incidental harms that otherwise would not have been foreseeable. This increased awareness could also help commanders identify and take additional precautions, including by identifying additional property or areas that should not be attacked or that would require additional review or higher-level approval before being attacked.

Second, autonomous technology can be used for target identification, tracking, selection, and engagement functions to allow weapons to strike military objectives more accurately and with less risk of collateral damage.

Many types of missiles or bombs have “lock-on-after-launch” functions that allow the projectile to guide itself autonomously to targets after being launched by the human operator. The projectile has sensors that allow it to identify the target that the human operator intends to hit, and computers and guidance systems that allow it to select and engage that target. For example, the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range, Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) incorporates an active radar in connection with an inertial reference unit and microcomputer system, which allows the missile to use its active radar to guide it to intercept its target.

The use of munitions with guidance systems allows commanders to strike military objectives more accurately and with less risk of harm to civilians and civilian objects. Moreover, when the weapon is more accurate, fewer weaponsneed to be fired to create the same military advantage.

Similarly, more accurate weapons can also allow for a smaller warhead to be used to generate the same military effect. For example, the GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb Increment II (SDB II) under development uses millimeter wave radarand imaging infrared sensors to find and identify targets, refine aim points, and guide the weapon to impact. The approximately 200 lb. weapon includes capabilities for target search, classification, and prioritization, and its small warhead allows for targets to be hit with less risk of collateral damage.

The addition of target detection and engagement functions can reduce the risk to civilians posed by weapons. As the Convention on Cluster Munitions recognizes, the use of explosive submunitions designed to detect and engage a single target object can be used to avoid indiscriminate area effects and the risks posed by unexploded submunitions. For example, the CBU-105 (Sensor-Fuzed Weapon) uses submunitions with advanced sensors to target precisely and engage enemy tanks and armored vehicles, rather than dispersing its submunitions in an unguided fashion.

In conclusion, the examples that we have discussed today help illustrate the challenge of using emerging technologies to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects, but it is important to recall that technology is often applied in innovative ways that are wholly unlike previous applications.

Emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems could be used to create entirely new capabilities that would increase the ability of States to reduce the risk of civilian casualties in applying force.

Rather than trying to stigmatize or ban such emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapon systems, States should encourage such innovation that furthers the objectives and purposes of the Convention.