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Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) – Agenda item 5(d)
Review of potential military applications of related technologies
September 30, 2020

September 19, 2020

The United States considers the review of potential military applications of related technologies essential for keeping our work relevant and grounded in reality rather than speculative scenarios.

Understanding the military applications is important for our consideration of the other agenda items. For example, what IHL requires often depends on how weapons or tools are being used. In our 2019 working paper, we described three general scenarios for the use of autonomous features or functions in weapon systems. In our national commentary on Guiding Principle (a), we have proposed the specific conclusions about how IHL applies to these military applications.

Understanding the military applications also informs our discussion of the human-machine interaction. Existing weapons systems incorporate varying degrees of autonomy across a range of functions. The lessons learned and best practices identified in the course of developing, reviewing, and fielding existing semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons can serve as a basis for addressing potential concerns posed by future weapons. We refer you to our two slide presentations from 2018: (1)Autonomy in Mine Countermeasures, An Overview of Single Sortie-Detect to Engage; and (2) Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System (C-RAM) for specific examples of existing weapons systems that incorporate autonomy. We appreciate that a growing number of HCPs have contributed similar presentations and would like to see this sharing of experience continue and potentially expand among High Contracting Parties. For example, we appreciate the Netherlands sharing its experience regarding the Goalkeeper weapon system during this meeting.

Lastly, this topic permits us to explore the possible benefits of such applications. Past practice demonstrates that advances in autonomy can make weaponry more precise and reduce the risks of civilian casualties, thereby strengthening the implementation of IHL. The GGE has reflected this insight in Guiding Principle (h), which states that “Consideration should be given to the use of emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems in upholding compliance with IHL and other applicable international legal obligations.” We have provided examples in our commentary on Guiding Principle (h), and hope to continue this conversation.

More specifically, to encourage innovation that furthers the objects and purposes of the CCW, the GGE should develop examples of specific good practices to enhance the benefits of emerging technologies in the area of LAWS, which States can consider. For example, the GGE could begin this workstream by cataloging examples of ways in which emerging technologies in the area of LAWS could be used to help reduce risks to civilians in military operations, such as by:

1. incorporating autonomous self-destruct, self-deactivation, or self-neutralization mechanisms into munitions;

2. increasing awareness of civilians and civilian objects on the battlefield;

3. improving assessments of the likely effects of military operations;

4. automating target identification, tracking, selection, and engagement to improve speed, precision, and accuracy; and

5. reducing the need for immediate fires in self-defense.

You can find this proposal in writing in our commentary related to Guiding Principle (h).

In addition, our 2018 working paper titled Humanitarian Benefits of Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (CCW/GGE.1/2018/WP.4) discusses these practices in greater detail.


· U.S. slide show: Autonomy in Mine Countermeasures, An Overview of Single Sortie-Detect to Engage. https://geneva.usmission.gov/2018/09/05/ccw-gge-u-s-slide-presentation-autonomy-in-mine-countermeasures-an-overview-of-single-sortie-detect-to-engage/

· U.S. slide show: Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System (C-RAM). https://geneva.usmission.gov/2018/04/13/u-s-slide-presentation-at-ccw-gge-counter-rocket-artillery-and-mortar-system-c-ram/

· Human-Machine Interaction in the Development, Deployment, and Use of Emerging Technologies in the Area of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems – United States (CCW/GGE.2/2018/WP.4). https://unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/7C335E71DFCB29D1C1258243003E8724?OpenDocument