BY MARKUS WAGNER — The article analyzes the use of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) and the challenges that such systems pose with respect to compliance with the law of armed conflict. Importantly, AWS pose different questions than those surrounding the current use of unmanned aerial systems. For that reason, the article briefly sketches the history of AWS. It then distinguishes the current technologies, which operate either by way of remote control or through automated mechanisms, from systems which are currently under development and which operate either wholly autonomously or at least at a higher level of autonomy and without direct human input while carrying out their missions (II.).
Part III. provides a detailed analysis of AWS under the principle of distinction and the principle of proportionality. It argues that while AWS may be able to satisfy the former principle under certain conditions, it is not clear that the same is true for the latter. The critical challenges with respect to the principle of proportionality and its applicability for AWS is manifold. The principle is difficult to apply in the abstract and thus is difficult to “translate” into machine code in a manner that allows it to be applied to real-life situations and changing circumstances. This problem originates in the lack of a generally accepted definition of what exactly the principle of proportionality requires in each situation. The article therefore concludes that current technology is incapable of allowing AWS to be operated within the existing framework of the law of armed conflict. While there may well be situations in which these requirements are met, these situations include only a fraction of modern military operations and AWS do not provide additional benefits over existing weaponry for these situations. Part IV. provides concluding observations.