Autonomous Weapon Systems: The Anatomy of Autonomy and the Legality of Lethality

40 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2015

Date Written: January 1, 2015


This comment explores the legal implications and predicted efficacy of autonomous weapon systems, as well as the effects that their use might have on both international humanitarian law and the conduct of hostilities. The defining feature of an autonomous weapon system is its capability of selecting and engaging targets independent of human intervention. While benefits can be realized from such functionality, they are tempered with unclear issues such as the proper identification of civilians, the efficaciousness of substituting robotic calculations for human judgements, command responsibility, and unintended effects on a deploying state's standing in the international community, among others. Because autonomous weapon systems serve essentially as platforms that are capable of supporting a variety of munitions, it is unlikely that they will be categorically considered unlawful per se. Instead, the prospect of legal difficulties emanates from the potential manners in which such systems operate and how design drives decisions on the battlefield. Polarized state views on the development of autonomous weapon systems have set the stage for worldwide forethought and prudence, and this comment aims to aid in the developing discussion.

Keywords: Autonomous Weapon System, Autonomy, Law of Armed Conflict, LOAC, Armed Conflict, International Humanitarian Law, IHL, Humanitarian Law, Laws of War, Necessity, Proportionality, Distinction, Targeting, Lethal Autonomous Robot, Combatant, Direct Participation in Hostilities

JEL Classification: K33, K39, O33, O38

Suggested Citation

Thomas, Bradan, Autonomous Weapon Systems: The Anatomy of Autonomy and the Legality of Lethality (January 1, 2015). Houston Journal of International Law, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2015. Available at SSRN:

Bradan Thomas (Contact Author)

Independent ( email )

No Address Available

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