The risks of autonomous weapons: ethical and technical issues

Autonomous Weapon Systems (AWS)

Autonomous weapons capable of selecting and engaging targets without human intervention raise ethical, accountability and control concerns.

Autonomous Weapon Systems (AWS) represent a major technological advance in the military field. These systems are capable of selecting and engaging targets without human intervention, raising complex issues of ethics, accountability and control. This article explores the technical aspects, advantages and disadvantages, and consequences of using these weapons.

How Autonomous Weapon Systems work

Technical description

SALs incorporate advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and sophisticated sensors. They use algorithms to analyze data in real time and make decisions on the battlefield. For example, an autonomous drone can use infrared cameras and radar to detect targets, then launch munitions according to programmed criteria.

Selection and engagement process

The process of selecting and engaging a target with a SAL takes place in several stages. First, the system gathers information about the environment and nearby objects. Next, it analyzes this data to identify potential targets using recognition models. Finally, it makes the decision whether or not to engage the target, based on predefined programming rules.

Advantages of Autonomous Weapon Systems

Reducing risk to soldiers

One of the main benefits of SAL is the reduction of risk for soldiers. By deploying autonomous systems in dangerous areas, the military can minimize casualties. For example, autonomous drones can be used for reconnaissance missions in hostile territories, providing critical information without exposing troops.

Operational efficiency

SAL can improve operational efficiency by making rapid decisions and executing missions with greater precision. They can operate 24 hours a day, without fatigue, which is particularly useful in continuous surveillance situations. What’s more, the use of SAL reduces operational costs in the long term, by limiting the need to deploy troops in the field.

Concrete examples

The US military already uses semi-autonomous systems such as the MQ-9 Reaper drone, capable of monitoring and engaging targets with minimal human intervention. These drones can stay airborne for over 27 hours and cover thousands of square kilometers, providing uninterrupted coverage.

drone swarm

Disadvantages and Risks of Autonomous Weapon Systems

Ethical issues

SAL autonomy raises important ethical issues. Delegating the decision to kill to a machine raises moral dilemmas about the responsibility and legitimacy of such actions. In the event of an error, it is difficult to determine who is responsible: the manufacturer, the programmer or the military operator?

Erroneous targeting risks

SALs can make targeting errors, resulting in civilian casualties and collateral damage. Algorithms can misinterpret data or fail to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, especially in complex and dynamic environments. For example, in 2019, a Turkish autonomous drone was accused of mistakenly attacking civilians in Libya.

Involuntary escalation of conflicts

The use of SAL can lead to the unintentional escalation of conflicts. Their speed of reaction and ability to operate without human intervention can provoke unforeseen military responses and escalate hostilities. The speed with which these systems can engage targets increases the risk of misunderstandings and unwanted confrontations.

Consequences of Autonomous Weapon Systems

Strategic implications

The adoption of SAL could transform military strategies, favoring technology-based approaches rather than numerical superiority. Nations equipped with SAL could dominate the battlefield, rendering traditional armies obsolete. This could also trigger an arms race, with each country seeking to develop its own autonomous systems to avoid being technologically outpaced.

Regulations and international treaties

SAL proliferation requires strict international regulation. At present, there is no global legal framework governing the use of these weapons. Organizations such as the United Nations have begun to discuss the need to address this issue, but much remains to be done to establish clear norms and rules. For example, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) has addressed the subject, but without reaching consensus on specific restrictions or prohibitions.

Impact on human rights

SAL can have significant impacts on human rights, particularly with regard to the right to life and human dignity. Targeting errors can lead to human rights violations, and the lack of clear accountability makes it difficult to repair the damage caused. Moreover, fear of autonomous attacks could have negative psychological effects on civilian populations, increasing stress and anxiety.

Autonomous weapons systems represent a major technological advance with profound implications for modern warfare. While they offer significant advantages in terms of risk reduction for soldiers and operational effectiveness, they also pose significant ethical, legal and strategic challenges. The international community must work together to regulate the use of these technologies and ensure that they are deployed responsibly and ethically. Ongoing discussions on regulations and international treaties are an important first step, but much remains to be done to ensure that innovation does not come at the expense of human rights and global security.

War Wings Daily is an independant magazine.