Autonomous Weapons and the Laws of War – Valdai Discussion Club

Autonomous weapons are moving from engineering concept to army arsenals all around the world, and reports on their combat use are becoming more frequent. The first surprise about drones is that non-government military groups were the first to use them in different conflicts, writes Vadim Kozyulin

There were 31 armed conflicts in the world in 2020. The events in Nagorno-Karabakh in September-November 2020 stood out because the regular armies of Azerbaijan and Armenia took part in the hostilities. This might be considered the first clash of relatively modern and equal armies in the 21st century. Attack drones were used in the war on a large scale. Their efficiency was confirmed many times by video recordings, the authenticity of which is beyond doubt. In addition to weapons of the 20th century, the sides used advanced arms reconnaissance and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs).

The rough equality of capability matters because it makes it possible to assess to what extent autonomous weapon systems are compatible with international humanitarian law (IHL).

Many experts were surprised that the parties to the conflict rarely used piloted aircraft planes or helicopters. In fact, this was the first war in which the primary aviation objectives – reconnaissance, target detection and strikes – were carried out by drones.

Should attack autonomous weapon systems be outlawed?

Apprehensions that lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) will not comply with IHL requirements are today the main argument used by advocates of prohibiting their use on an international scale. This