Stigmatized as “killer robots” by opponents, autonomous weapons systems are widely regarded as harbingers of a paradigm shift in warfare. As described in a 2012 Pentagon document,3 “[Once] activated, [they] can seek, select and engage targets without intervention by a human operator.” In other words, these weapons would be able to make decisions on the use of lethal force without a human in the decision-making loop. The directive says such systems should allow for “appropriate levels of human judgment” over the use of lethal force, leaving open the question of what constitutes “appropriate.”
So far, only precursor systems and technology demonstrators exist. This makes autonomous weapons systems a candidate for preventive arms control.
This article clarifies what autonomous weapons systems are and lists the driving forces behind the push toward weapons autonomy. It reviews the resulting problems that render this technology a hotly debated arms control issue. After the CCW landscape has been charted, the article concludes by identifying four possible outcomes of the CCW process and pondering future arms control perspectives and policy recommendations.