Emerging Technologies: Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

 By Anashwara Ashok

The introduction of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) has revolutionised the nature of warfare and the way rules of war are comprehended in the 21st century. With the rapid development of dual-use technologies like artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and machine learning, the prospects of deployment of LAWS have increased manifold. Positive usage of AI is prominent in the fields of medicine, education and law enforcement, however, it is accompanied by its legal, ethical and technical concerns in the civilian and military domains. While no formal definition exists, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) interprets autonomous weapons systems as one that has autonomy in its ‘critical functions’, meaning a weapon that can select (search or detect, identify, track) and attack (intercept, use force against, neutralise, damage or destroy) targets without human intervention.

According to the Global Peace Index 2019 released by the Institute for Economics and Peace, West Asia and South Asia are the most unstable regions in the world. India ranked 137 in 2016, 137 in 2017 and further relegated to 141 in 2019. LAWS have been developed by some countries and the probability of their usage is high in such a world scenario. Certain areas of contention such as aspects of proliferation, accountability, decision-making, checks and balances, ensuring their safety from the hands of non-state actors and terrorists need further discussions.

Emerging technology in modern warfare

Autonomous weapon systems are equipped with sensors, processors and effectors to perceive the environment; have situational awareness; make appropriate decisions and act upon the environment. These are classified under different taxonomies-:

a)         Controlled – remote-controlled, pre-programmed, supervised, autonomous.

b)         Operational- space, air, ground, sea

c)         Functional- military utilization

World over, there is widespread deployment of Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) like Throwbot (surveillance), M160 (mine disposal), and TALON (IED disposal). Several countries have recognised the strategic importance of UGVs for their national security and continue to develop a range of AI-driven and tracked combat UGVs like Bogomol (Belarus), Vikhir (Russia), Ripsaw (USA), Giant Tiger (China). Research indicates that 33 percent of future warfare will be unmanned and deployment of Unmanned Combat Ground Vehicle (UCGV) can provide a tactical advantage and technological superiority in the war. The cycle time from design to deployment is long for UCGVs due to extensive testing and validation, hence, many countries, particularly China, are already pursuing full-fledged long term UCGV programmes.  It is imperative that India also commences a robust indigenous programme for UCGVs in keeping with other countries, particularly its neighbours.

LAWS in Future Warfare

Contrary to the popular belief of LAWS being a threat to human existence, warheads attached to these weapons can hit targets with precision, in turn avoiding collateral damage. Considering the changing character of future conflicts, there should be research and development on LAWS in both public and private sector. LAWS will have a huge implication on future warfare in terms of decision making, ethical issues, operational risks, accountability and these are bound to extend the zone of conflict.

Unless and until nations develop and evolve their technology with time and stay ahead of the curve, they will be preyed upon. It is fundamental to have a holistic view of LAWS. Any device can be unsuspiciously converted into lethal autonomous weapon systems and likewise, artificial intelligence can be used to develop machines with empathy and other forms of human emotion.

Global Responses

United Nations

Acknowledging the changing nature of modern warfare and potential impact of LAWS, the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) tabled the subject for urgent discussions at the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) since 2013. Three informal discussions were held from 2014-2016, followed by deliberations by the Group of Governmental Experts since 2017. With the efforts of Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill, India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and also the current Chair of the Group of Governmental Experts of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), parties have arrived at a consensus on some possible guiding principles for LAWS. Previous meetings have deliberated on points of convergence and divergence and have raised the issue that autonomous weapons can supplement but cannot replace humans altogether.

The next GGE meeting is scheduled from 20 to 21 August 2019, wherein an outcome document through consensus is being envisaged. Agenda to be discussed at GGE meeting in August 2019 includes-:

a)         Review of the potential military application

b)         Characterization of the systems under consideration

c)         Exploration of the potential challenges to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

d)         Further consideration of the human element

e)         Options to address humanitarian and security challenges.

The forum has flagged important issues like appropriate human control, level of autonomy, and IHL for international discussion. There are four categories of views presented by states on the use of LAWS. First, states advocating a total ban on usage of LAWS, mostly being Non-Aligned Movement members. Second, the Franco-German category supported by the EU proposing a political declaration on LAWS. Third, developed countries like Russia and the US demanding no further discussions. Fourth, China’s advocacy for the development of LAWS but with a prohibition on its deployment on the battlefield. India has taken cognizance of these views and has pointed out the importance of forming a consensus among states in a way that opinion of all is given significance during policy formulations

ICRC demands a more ‘human-centered’ approach towards LAWS instead of a blanket ban. A level of human control to select and attack targets must be retained, and these must comply with IHL applying to situations of conflict and also International Human Rights complementing the same. According to IHL, the component of human control over LAWS needs to comply with three principles, i.e., principle of humanity, principle of distinction and principle of proportionality. Ethical concerns, principles of humanity and dictates of public conscience must dictate the use of such weapons.

GGE meetings have deliberated upon a need to review IHL to limit the harmful effects of LAWS. However, these cannot be a substitute for an internationally agreed limit on autonomy and weapon control required to be attained by consensus and commitment of participating nations. Hence, three approaches for limits of autonomy as suggested by ICRC are-:

  1. A reformed law
  2. A political obligation for human control
  3. An improved implementation of existing laws

Indian Viewpoint

India has argued that the forum of CCW is appropriate to build consensus on the future of LAWS. The convention takes into consideration the IHL and security concerns as well as brings all stakeholders together. India has participated in all the open discussions and GGE meetings since 2013 with representation from the Ministry of Defence, Indian Army, Indian Air Force, DRDO, and the MEA. These meetings are also attended by civil society, academia, industry organisations, and non-governmental organisations. At the forthcoming meeting, India must showcase its stand on the future of LAWS, after considering its national security interests.

DRDO has rolled out ‘Muntra’, India’s first unmanned remotely operated tank with three variants Muntra-S, Muntra-M and Muntra-N for surveillance, mine detection and reconnaissance in areas with nuclear and biological threats. Other teleoperated UGVs for combat roles being developed by DRDO include gun mounted remotely operated vehicle, and swarm-based, self-healing dynamic minefield. It is currently in the process of developing robots for armed forces as part of unmanned fighting systems. This flagship programme aims to develop robotic soldiers with the ability to work like a human soldier on the battlefield. Such developments are accompanied by incessant R&D through private establishments and government initiatives like ‘Make in India’.

Although India has reiterated the necessity of some kind of human control over these autonomous weapons but to uphold India’s national security, it is important to be pragmatic about developing LAWS in tandem with respecting the standards of IHL. Since LAWS have revolutionised the future of armed conflict, therefore India must not fall behind and avoid technological apartheid. The only way to counter the possible challenges of emerging technologies is through augmenting indigenous capabilities. The need of the hour is to establish a clear strategy on LAWS for India to be at the top of the game.


Any system that delivers accuracy, lethality and range always remains attractive, especially when the human factor is removed. Technological advancement has no boundaries, however, laying down regulatory mechanisms must be laid down through debate and consensus. Once regulations are laid out, nations must ensure their meticulous enforcement. India should remain practical and pragmatic and not lose sight of its national interest. The nation may face a high-tech adversary in the north, low-medium tech adversary in the west in the near future and must be prepared to counter the same. Though it is important to maintain human control but at the same time India must be pragmatic about the threat it faces from the adversaries. It is time for the country to stop being reactive and strengthen indigenous technology and address these aspirations through a ‘comprehensive outlook for national security’.