by Ariel Conn
What, exactly, is an autonomous weapon? For the general public, the phrase is often used synonymously with killer robots and triggers images of the Terminator. But for the military, the definition of an autonomous weapons system, or AWS, is deceivingly simple.
The United States Department of Defense defines an AWS as “a weapon system that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator. This includes human-supervised autonomous weapon systems that are designed to allow human operators to override operation of the weapon system, but can select and engage targets without further human input after activation.”
Basically, it is a weapon that can be used in any domain — land, air, sea, space, cyber, or any combination thereof — and encompasses significantly more than just the platform that fires the munition. This means that there are various capabilities the system possesses, such as identifying targets, tracking, and firing, all of which may have varying levels of human interaction and input.
Heather Roff, a research scientist at The Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, suggests that even the basic terminology of the DoD’s definition is unclear.
“This definition is problematic because we don’t really know what ‘select’ means here. Is it ‘detect’ or ‘select’?” she asks. Roff also notes another definitional problem arises because, in many instances, the difference between an autonomous weapon (acting independently) and an automated weapon (pre-programmed to act automatically) is not clear.