Autonomous Weapons and International Law

64 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2017 Last revised: 4 Apr 2018

See all articles by Christopher Ford

Christopher Ford

Government of the United States of America - Stockton Center for the Study of International Law

Date Written: April 11, 2017


Autonomous weapons — those weapons which can select and engage targets without human involvement — herald perhaps the most fundamental change in warfare in generations. The rise of autonomous weapons has sparked a robust international debate centered on one fundamental question: are the current laws of armed conflict sufficient to govern autonomous weapon systems? Positions span the spectrum from a call for preemptive prohibition to arguments that current legal norms are adequate to regulate these future weapon systems. While autonomous features may give rise to circumstances in which the application of the law is rendered uncertain or difficult, the current normative legal framework is sufficient to regulate the new technology.

This article considers the entirety of positions and seeks to present a comprehensive, objective discussion of the relevant issues in international law. In the course of this examination, the article reaches two broad conclusions. First, autonomy is less a technology as it is a capability comprised of multiple technologies. Given this fact, “autonomous weapons” cannot be considered a homogeneous category of weapons that complies, or not, with the law of armed conflict. Rather, whether a given system meets the requirements of this body of law will depend on the system and the manner in which it is used. Second, the normative framework established by the law of armed conflict is sufficient to ensure the lawful operation of most types of weapons employing autonomous technologies.

This article represents the culmination of two years of research including feedback and input from meetings with organizations and individuals, military and civilian, at the forefront of AWS research and development. These organizations include U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy Autonomous Research Labs, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, the Geneva Academy, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Professor Marco Sassoli at the University of Geneva, Professor Tim McCormack at the University of Melborne Law School, Professor Peter Margulies at Roger Williams University, Paul Scharre at the Center for a New American Security, Professor Leslie Kaelbling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ben Price and colleagues at the Lincoln Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Keywords: Autonomous Weapons, AWS, LAWS, International Law, IHL, LOAC, Law of Armed Conflict, International Humanitarian Law

JEL Classification: K33, K00

Suggested Citation

Ford, Christopher, Autonomous Weapons and International Law (April 11, 2017). 69 S. CAR. LAW REV. 413, Available at SSRN:

Christopher Ford (Contact Author)

Government of the United States of America - Stockton Center for the Study of International Law ( email )

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