The purpose of the development of weapons by states has usually been propagated as the promotion of peace and stability. However, as technology has advanced, the lethality of weaponry has increased, with disastrous humanitarian effects.
In the case of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), the international community has failed to outlaw such lethal weapons, allowing national interests to be pursued at the price of international peace and security.
Consequently, the question of whether LAWS will make human civilization more secure or unstable arises. How best can Pakistan, a developing state, cope with the emerging situation?
What are LAWS
Lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) possess the ability to independently choose and engage targets without any direct human intervention. These systems are sometimes referred to as robotic weapons or killer robots. Drones, commonly labeled as unmanned systems, do not fit this categorization accurately as they involve human control through remote operators. In contrast, autonomous weapons are often classified as “out-of-the-loop” systems, as they operate without continuous human guidance. Once programmed, these weapons carry out their missions without further instructions from humans, effectively removing the operator from the decision-making process. In contrast with autonomous weapons, drones are based on an ‘in-the-loop’ system. Self-ruling weapons, on the other ham, are equipped with decision-making capacity.
In this regard, LAWS can be divided into two categories: semi-autonomous weapons (SAWs) and autonomous weapons (AWs) depending on their decision-making capacity. SAWs require humans for their functioning. However, AWs are fully capable of functioning without human help.
Economic and Ethical Aspects:
The most frequently cited security concerns are that these weapons have the ability to escalate the pace of warfare and the likelihood of resorting to war, in large part due to the promise of significantly reduced military casualties. They ignite and foster arms races. These LAWS can be acquired and used by non-state armed entities, including terrorist organizations and rogue governments. They violate existing warfare laws, controls, and regulations. Contrary to nuclear weapons, LAWS require no specific hard-to-create materials and will be difficult to monitor and track. It is projected that autonomous weapons would eventually replace Kalashnikovs because of how easily they can be obtained. Peter Singer asserts that because war is already robotic in nature, it will continue to be so in the future.
The use of mechanical technology-robotics in conflict today is highlighted by two incidents. First, a private contractual worker supported the rebel armed force in the Libyan Civil War by using commercial, non-military drones. Second, in the war against the Islamic State (IS), semi-autonomous weapons like drones have been used by Russia, Iraq, the US, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. As a result, the development of LAWS would inevitably result in improvements in asymmetric warfare due to the clear benefits to the user.
The ethical and legal debate about weapons is not new. On the basis of the aforementioned claims, there is a discourse within the international community that either accepts or wants to prohibit a new technology, ranging from the Spartan Army’s objection to long-range weaponry to the employment of submarines and chemical weapons, etc.
The initial concern against keeping LAWS is that a machine or machine program can never come to understand ethical and legal principles. The second concern is that it is inappropriate to exclude humans from the system because in that case there would be no one to hold accountable. Simply said, a machine can never understand the worth of human life and, therefore, can never be fully trusted. Another worry is that new conflicts or wars would break out as a result of fewer soldiers dying in battle. One example is the extensive use of drone strikes by the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a case in point.
In April 2013, a United Nations (UN) special report asserted that member states should take the initiative in banning these weapons and should not develop or deploy these weapons since these weapons violate the ‘Principle of Distinction’ (jus in bello) and ‘Principle of Proportionality’ (jus ad bellum).
Currently Employed LAWS
The oldest automatically activated fatal weapons still in use today date to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for land mines and naval mines, respectively. Naval and anti-personnel mines also come under the category of autonomous weapons. Anti-personnel mines are banned in many countries under the Ottawa Treaty signed in 1997. However, the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and many Middle East states are not signatories.
Through active protection systems like the US Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), the Israeli Trophy, Iron Dome, Russian Arena, and the German AMAP Active Defence System (ADS), the automated systems that are currently available can protect selected subjects. The USS Coral Sea received the first US Phalanx CIWS installation in 1980, following the commencement of manufacture in 1978. Since 1978, the Phalanx has been the subject of an intensive and ongoing manufacture, upgrade, and maintenance effort.
One of the most effective anti-missile systems in the world, the Iron Dome missile defense system can recognize and destroy projectiles before they reach Israeli territory. The US Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided (TOW) missile can be deflected away from armored vehicles with the help of Russia’s new active defense system Arena-M for T-72 and T-90 tanks.
A sophisticated air-to-ground radar-guided missile called Brimstone was created by MBDA for the Royal Air Force (RAF) of the UK. The missile can accurately and successfully strike both stationary and moving ground-based targets.
Brimstone can be utilized against a sizable enemy arsenal and operates according to the “fire-and-forget” principle.
Following issues caused by significant collateral damage during the Afghan War, laser guiding tools were added to the missile for the purpose of defining targets.
Pakistan has taken a clear and straightforward stance on the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). It not only calls for a complete ban on autonomous technology but also argues that LAWS are inherently unethical. Regardless of their sophistication, Pakistan believes that these weapons cannot be programmed to comply with International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
The country expresses concerns that LAWS would lower the threshold for going to war and create a void of responsibility, jeopardizing the lives of soldiers and non-combatants.
Pakistan has actively advocated for a binding convention within the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) framework that would ban the advancement and use of autonomous weapons. While there are currently only a small number of such systems in existence, Pakistan warns that the technology will soon become more accessible, potentially leading to increased violence. Pakistan believes that LAWS poses challenges to IHL and was the first country to call for a ban on these weapons. It has played a leading role in pushing for a preemptive ban through the CCW and, as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), served as the president of the CCW’s Fifth Review Conference in 2016, where the ban received support. Other countries, including Sri Lanka, Argentina, China, and Peru, have also expressed agreement with banning autonomous weapons.
Pakistan views LAWS as highly dangerous, particularly due to the potential for upgrading them into fully autonomous systems. The government asserts that in the chaos of war, LAWS could prove to be inhumane weapons.
Pakistan emphasizes the need for clear definitions and guidelines to ensure that human judgment remains central in wartime decision-making, maintaining adherence to International Human Rights Law (IRL).
On the other hand, India is pursuing the development of autonomous weapons while advocating for comprehensive international regulations. Indian proponents argue that due to the security challenges in South Asia and India’s own security needs, autonomous weapons can provide significant benefits in areas such as border management and asset protection. They believe that a ban on LAWS is currently unnecessary since their operational utilization is not fully established. Instead, India aims to work towards the development, transfer, and deployment of these weapons, asserting that the country should secure its share of this technology to align with future global powers. However, Indian proponents also acknowledge concerns about the potential proliferation of automated technology to non-state actors. Nevertheless, it appears that India prioritizes developing this technology before international regulations are firmly established.
Options for Pakistan:
The exact manner in which lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) will be utilized remains uncertain. Therefore, it is appropriate for Pakistan to call for comprehensive discussions regarding their use and integration into international law. However, many of these advancements already exist today and are likely to be employed in future conflict zones, regardless of human involvement. Consequently, the Pakistani government must stay informed about current LAWS technologies. This entails recognizing the continued relevance of LAWS in functions such as targeting, surveillance, and damage assessment. The automation of these functions offers a significant advantage to nations, making it crucial for countries like Pakistan to actively pursue research and development in autonomous systems.
Considering Pakistan’s defense policy and unique security situation in the region, it is important to keep options open regarding the development of these weapons, as the incorporation of LAWS appears inevitable in the military strategies of major international players.
As LAWS technology advances, it will have various potential influences on global events and foreign policy decisions. Unless the United Nations takes decisive action against it, the international community is likely to continue developing these weapons due to their perceived lower error rates in conflicts. In this context, Pakistan should adopt a pragmatic approach in choosing its stance.
The advent of LAWS will also bring about changes in national security perceptions, and international human rights organizations may lean towards supporting the development of LAWS for humanitarian purposes, regardless of Pakistan’s involvement in this technological race. Furthermore, as there is a possibility of combining LAWS with undersea, surface ships, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), drones, and cyber technologies, it is imperative for Pakistan to closely monitor this emerging battlefield.
The extent of the danger posed by lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) is challenging to envision, but machines already play a role in present-day military operations. In the near future, these machines will gain more autonomy, creating new possibilities for decision-makers. It is highly likely that as today’s war machines evolve into fully autonomous systems, decision-makers may become more inclined to resort to the use of force. Therefore, it is crucial to demand answers to crucial moral and ethical questions before allowing the development of fully autonomous weapons. These questions should encompass considerations of potential changes in military doctrines resulting from the development of LAWS. Additionally, politicians should call for more research into the potential consequences of deploying LAWS, with particular attention to the impact on civilian populations. While LAWS can have humanitarian applications, there must be assurances that these technologies will not be diverted from humanitarian purposes to military objectives. Achieving a comprehensive global consensus is necessary to address these issues.
In international relations, states primarily pursue their self-interest. Despite the existence of international law, countries continue to develop nuclear weapons to further their security, political, and military objectives. Similarly, LAWS provide major powers with a significant advantage in warfare, ensuring their continued development. Pakistan, too, cannot disregard the emergence of LAWS as a reality and should strive to comprehend this technology, even if it chooses not to fully develop and operationalize such weapons.
It is important to remain mindful of the Melian Dialogue between Spartans and Athenians during the Peloponnesian War, where “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
The author is a scholar of Peace and Conflict studies at the National Defence University, Islamabad. Her Area of interest is globalization and the great powers of Asia.