Lethal Autonomous Weapons

… a core concept used in Managing New Technologies and Atlas112M

Concept description

Wikipedia (reference below) defines lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) as a type of autonomous military system that can independently search for and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions.

For a view of concerns about LAWs, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-ai/#AutoSyst) and Lethal AWS (https://autonomousweapons.org/), a website supported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, the Future of Life Institute, and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

For a December 2020 article by the US Congressional Research Service, see Defense Primer: U.S. Policy on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems, which states:

“Contrary to a number of news reports, U.S. policy does not prohibit the development or employment of LAWS. Although the United States does not currently have LAWS in its inventory, some senior military and defense leaders have stated that the United States may be compelled to develop LAWS in the future if potential U.S. adversaries choose to do so. At the same time, a growing number of states and nongovernmental organizations are appealing to the international community for regulation of or a ban on LAWS due to ethical concerns.”

Drone swarms

Writing in Forbes, David Hambling (reference below) quotes General John Murray, head of US Army Futures Command:

“When you are defending against a drone swarm, a human may be required to make that first decision, but I am just not sure any human can keep up,” said Murray. “How much human involvement do you actually need when you are [making] nonlethal decisions from a human standpoint?”

Hambling continues:

“Military swarms of a few hundred drones have already been demonstrated, in future we are likely to see swarms of thousands, or more. One U.S. Navy project envisages having to counter up to a million drones at once.

“The U.S. Army is spending a billion dollars on new air defense vehicles known as IM-SHORAD with cannon, two types of missile, jammers, and future options of laser and interceptor drones. Using the right weapon against the right target at the right time will be vital. Faced with large numbers of incoming threats, many of which may be decoys, human gunners are likely to be overtaxed. Murray said that the Army’s standard test involving flashcard identification requires an 80% pass rate. During the recent Project Convergence exercise, artificial intelligence software boosted this to 98% or 99%, according to Murray.”

The current state of play is described by Maaike Verbruggen at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (reference below) and concludes with:

“Swarms don’t exist yet, despite frequent claims in the media. But militaries are clearly making advances. It’s time for the arms control community to deal with the potential problems that swarms might pose. Most arms control treaties aim at controlling individual weapons, but the harm of swarms does not stem from the units themselves, but rather from their indirect and collective nature. Arms controllers will need a new conceptual toolkit to think about and deal with the risks. Militaries have long moved away from valuing only military assets that are individual, physical, and weaponized and toward a network-based frame. Maybe the arms control community should follow suit.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Managing New Technologies (core topic) in Information and Technology Management and Atlas112M Management of Human, Information, and Technology Resources.


Wikipedia, Lethal autonomous weapon, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lethal_autonomous_weapon, accessed 3 March 2021.

David Hambling (2021), Drone Swarms Are Getting Too Fast For Humans To Fight, U.S. General Warns, Forbes, 27 January 2021, at https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2021/01/27/drone-swarms-are-getting-too-fast-for-humans-too-fight-us-general-warns/, accessed 3 March 2021.

Maaike Verbruggen (2021), Drone swarms: coming (sometime) to a war near you. Just not today., Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 3 February 2021, accessed 3 March 2021.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 4 March 2021.

Image: Frank Wolfe, Aviation Today, Companies Developing Lethal Autonomous Weapons, As Groups Seek Ban, Report Says, 2 December 2019, at https://www.aviationtoday.com/2019/12/02/companies-developing-lethal-autonomous-weapons-as-groups-seek-ban-report-says/, accessed 3 March 2021.