A War Without Humans – The Threat of Lethal Autonomous Weapons

"At the 60th Munich Security Conference in 2024, what will be the most important security challenge on the agenda, and why?", we asked the applicants for our 2014 "MSC Junior Ambassadors" program. In the first essay published, Hannes Jöbstl argues that lethal autonomous weapons will be one of the most important challenges facing the strategic community in ten years.

In November of 2013, an explosion shattered the Garmsir district in Afghanistan. It was caused by a rocket fired from an unmanned drone floating over the area, aiming at a Taliban commander on his motorcycle. The missile missed its target, killed a young child and heavily wounded a woman. Thousands of miles away, someone smashed his fist on the desk. His mission had failed. The Taliban commander was alive. Although he was killed in a later drone strike, the initial attempt left casualties behind. Maybe the man in command for this operation will be held responsible for their deaths. Maybe the attack ran contrary to international humanitarian law. Was it human failure, or the fault of a not properly functioning semi-autonomous weapons system?

The keyword here is “semi-autonomous.” Some aspects of their operation are handled by remote human operators while others are handled by a computer. As their Artificial Intelligence becomes more advanced, human involvement will decline even further. It is not inconceivable that eventually they will become so called “lethal autonomous weapons,” which means, that these devices identify, attack, and kill their targets without any human involvement. This would raise countless legal, ethical and political questions. Can a machine distinguish between a civilian and a combatant without any doubt? If not, who will be held responsible for their death when nobody issued an order? The producer, the programmer? Also, the potential abuses will multiply. Electronic subversion, even theft of these mechanical soldiers, could occur. These are questions that, as yet, have no answers.

Some may wonder whether the idea of fully autonomous killer robots in 2024 sounds much more like science fiction than reality. Apparently not, at least not according to the United Nations. A few weeks ago, during the 2013 annual conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva, member states adopted a document establishing a mandate for the discussion of lethal autonomous weapon systems. Only one week later, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued a statement, calling for international action to address the concerns over fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.” Since it usually takes some time for the UN to address arising issues compared to the defense industry or national militaries, for instance, this clearly shows that the topic is far from only featuring in science fiction movies.

In a not too distant future, fully autonomous weapons systems might become available. If the technology for these weapons exists, they will be built. Since they have the potential of tremendously influencing the international security situation and the future of conflict and warfare, the issue of these weapons must be addressed on a global level. Whether we try to ban them, restrict or regulate their use, or welcome them as an opportunity to spare our own soldiers the horrors of the battlefield, these weapons have to be put onto the international agenda.

Fact is, technology is progressing rapidly. And until 2024, we might have already seen the first “killer robots” on the battlefield. That is why I strongly believe that they are going to be a key issue at the Munich Security Conference in 2024. Lethal autonomous weapons could lower the threshold for states going to war and would likely lead to a proliferation of these systems as states transfer and sell them. With domestic political costs of going to war lowered, the risk of a conflict triggered by accident would also increase. There would also be a risk of such weapons being intercepted and used by non‐state armed groups and terrorist organizations.

In addition, there are even more concerns. Hundreds of years ago, when we invented gunpowder and cannons, armor and castles became increasingly obsolete. As a result, armies grew in size and the political and logistical requirement of defense changed with them. Leaders had to rely on their populace and began to share power. Autonomous robotic weapons would allow a tiny amount of people to go to war on their own. This could result in a re‐centralizing of power into a few hands and constitute a possible threat to democracy itself. A human soldier can reject orders, a robot cannot.

Giving the enormous impact this would have on the international security situation, I am more than convinced that these weapons will be high on the agenda in 2024. The Munich Security Conference is an ideal forum for discussing how these weapons of the twenty‐first century will change the nature of conflict and how the world is going to deal with these changes.

In the coming years we will experience a new arms race between the tortoise of legal and institutional norms and the rapidly changing weapon industry. But as Angela Kane, the United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said earlier this year: “Killer robots are rapidly moving from the realm of science fiction to technological fact. But let's not forget that in Aesop's fable, the tortoise won the race.” But whoever is going to win, the track of this race leads through the Munich Security Conference 2024.



Hannes Jöbstl is a law student at the University of Graz. He is one of three Junior Ambassadors at the 50th Munich Security Conference and recipient of the Ulrich Weisser Scholarship.

About the Ulrich Weisser Scholarship
The Munich Security Conference awards three annual Ulrich Weisser Scholarships. These scholarships allow three promising students or young professionals, who have qualified through an essay contest, to participate in the Munich Security Conference. The scholarships are awarded to honour the memory of Vice Admiral Ulrich Weisser, who passed away in 2013. Vice Admiral Weisser was Head of the Policy Planning Staff at the German Ministry of Defense from 1992 to 1998, author of books and many articles on security and defense issues, and one of Germany’s leading strategic thinkers of the past decades.

22. Januar 2014, von Hannes Jöbstl