Assessing the Sense and Scope of ‘Autonomy’ in Emerging Military Weapon Systems

33 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2017

See all articles by Maziar Homayounnejad

Maziar Homayounnejad

King's College London - Dickson Poon School of Law, Department of War Studies

Date Written: August 24, 2017


Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) are essentially weapon systems that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further human intervention. While these are neither currently fielded nor officially part of any nation’s defence strategy, there is ample evidence that many States and defence contractors are currently developing LAWS for future deployment. Accordingly, this article will proceed in two main sections. Firstly, it offers a definition of LAWS, focusing on what it is about weapons autonomy that may call for these systems to be delineated, and subject to certain additional legal requirements in international humanitarian law (IHL), arms control and non-proliferation. Secondly, it considers what kinds of weapon systems are likely to emerge as LAWS, the unique challenges posed by them and some ongoing innovations to address these challenges.

Three themes run throughout the paper. Firstly, ‘autonomy’ is a term of art, which must be narrowly and specifically applied to weapon systems, if it is to be useful in a LAWS context. Secondly, the purpose for which weapons autonomy and LAWS are defined is to delineate systems that may need to be subject to a) deployment restrictions, b) stronger and additional precautions in attack (in IHL) and/or c) commonly agreed rules to promote strategic stability (in arms control) and non-proliferation. Accordingly, a third theme is to distinguish between the strategic, operational and tactical levels; and to bear in mind that machine autonomy is technically more feasible at the tactical level, while it is necessary to have extensive (deliberative) human involvement at the operational and strategic levels. Indeed, the epitome of this is precisely the setting of strategic priorities and operational parameters within which tactical autonomy will operate.

This is the first of a seven-part series. Future articles will build on it to address, more specifically:

1) whether and how LAWS can be deployed in compliance with IHL; 2) issues relating to the explosive remnants of war; 3) the lawful use of LAWS for targeted strikes; 4) legal and policy issues in the autonomous delivery of nuclear weapons; 5) arms control issues; and 6) non-proliferation.

Keywords: international humanitarian law, law of armed conflict, arms control, artificial intelligence, weapons autonomy

Suggested Citation

Homayounnejad, Maziar, Assessing the Sense and Scope of ‘Autonomy’ in Emerging Military Weapon Systems (August 24, 2017). TLI Think! Paper 76/2017, Available at SSRN: or

Maziar Homayounnejad (Contact Author)

King's College London - Dickson Poon School of Law, Department of War Studies ( email )

London, England, WC2R 2LS
United Kingdom

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