Autonomous Weapon Systems and the Limits of Analogy

9 Harvard National Security Journal 51, 2018

33 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2016 Last revised: 28 Jun 2018

See all articles by Rebecca Crootof

Rebecca Crootof

University of Richmond School of Law; Yale University - Yale Information Society Project

Date Written: January 9, 2018


Autonomous weapon systems are often described either as more independent versions of weapons already in use or as humanoid robotic soldiers. In many ways, these analogies are useful. Analogies and allusions to popular culture make new technologies seem accessible, identify potential dangers, and buttress desired narratives. Most importantly from a legal perspective, analogical reasoning helps stretch existing law to cover developing technologies and minimize law-free zones.

But all potential analogies — weapon, combatant, child soldier, animal combatant — fail to address the legal issues raised by autonomous weapon systems, largely because they all misrepresent legally salient traits. Conceiving of autonomous weapon systems as weapons minimizes their capacity for independent and self-determined action, while the combatant, child soldier, and animal combatant comparisons overemphasize it. Furthermore, these discrete and embodied analogies limit our ability to think imaginatively about this new technology and anticipate how it might develop, thereby impeding our ability to properly regulate it.

We cannot simply graft legal regimes crafted to regulate other entities onto autonomous weapon systems. Instead, as is often the case when analogical reasoning cannot justifiably stretch extant law to answer novel legal questions, new supplemental law is needed. The sooner we escape the confines of these insufficient analogies, the sooner we can create appropriate and effective regulations for autonomous weapon systems.

Keywords: autonomous weapon systems, international humanitarian law, law of armed conflict, analogy, weapons, combatants, child soldiers, animals, killer robot

Suggested Citation

Crootof, Rebecca, Autonomous Weapon Systems and the Limits of Analogy (January 9, 2018). 9 Harvard National Security Journal 51, 2018, Available at SSRN: or

Rebecca Crootof (Contact Author)

University of Richmond School of Law ( email )

28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States

Yale University - Yale Information Society Project ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06511
United States

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