The Fifth Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), ended recently in Geneva with an interesting resolution that may have far reaching impact on the future of war. The parties to the conference agreed to establish a formal process, via a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), to kick-start talks on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) in 2017, with India as its chair.

Shashank Reddy
Shashank Reddy is a researcher with Carnegie India.

LAWS, simply understood, are weapons that can be deployed without human intervention. While in popular imagination, such weapons are equated with Terminator style robots, they can include anything from such infantry replacing machines to smart missile defence shields. No country has yet deployed fully autonomous weapons, however given the current rate of technological development, the emergence of such weapon systems is bound to happen sooner or later.

This possibility has led to a growing number of people and institutions, including Elon Musk and the International Committee of the Red Cross, asking for a pre-emptive ban on the development and deployment of these weapons.

Two reasons are given for this. The first is moral. A number of commentators have argued that using LAWS places the decision to kill, always a weighty question, in the hands of machines. Given the sanctity of human life, this decision it is argued, must always rest with a human being. The second deals with compliance. The conduct of war today is governed by a host of international treaties, the compliance of which is often a subjective undertaking. Machines operating on pre-programmed codes and using objective criteria to make battlefield decisions, would not be able to comply in any substantial manner with these treaties.

Here also arises the question of liability. In case of any violations of these treaties, individual soldiers or their commanders can be held responsible for their actions. If an autonomous machine commits a war crime, where does the responsibility lie?

On the other hand, a number of people have pointed out that LAWS provide immense strategic and efficiency benefits that cannot be overlooked. Further, autonomy in weapon systems will in all likelihood be incremental and any pre-emptive ban may have a negative fallout on research in related fields, such as driver-less vehicles, which have significant civilian uses.

These positions are also split between smaller weapons importing countries, which have tended to advocate for a pre-emptive ban and larger, weapons exporting countries, which have been more circumspect on the issue.

It is in the context of this debate that the CCW’s decision must be seen. So far, LAWS have been discussed on the sidelines of the main conference through an informal meeting of experts. The decision to constitute a formal GGE is significant in this regard, as previous GGEs have led to legally binding international instruments that have prohibited or restricted certain weapon systems, thereby dramatically increasing the possibility of a similar instrument being adopted for LAWS.

As the designated chair of the GGE ,therefore, India has a unique opportunity to set the terms of the international debate. A major defence market and a global technology hub, India has its own stakes in the outcome of this debate. Unlike a few countries, including Pakistan, India has not expressed support for a pre-emptive ban. At the recent CCW conference India outlined what it considers to be the major issues at stake: compatibility with international law; impact on international security; technology gap among states; and possible increase in the use of military force to settle disputes. As the Chair of the GGE, it can be safely assumed that India will set the parameters of the debate with these four issues as touchstones.

The recommendations of the GGE will be important for two reasons: First, quite simply it will determine the course of future warfare. Second, it will have a knock-on effect on research and development in future technologies. The importance of ‘technology gap’ to India means that a pre-emptive ban is likely out of the question at the moment, as India would not seek to let go of a situation where it could possibly achieve technological parity with more advanced nations. What India should do instead is push for some form of regulations with emphasis on two points – the circumstances governing use of LAWS, and prohibition of sale of autonomous weapon technology to non-State actors.

Beyond these, as chair, India will also need to evolve a consensus to answer two questions: When is a weapon system ‘autonomous’?; and, whether the scope of the regulations, if any, will only be on future systems or will also include already developed systems that show elements of autonomy. Each of these questions is politically and diplomatically loaded, with the weapons programmes of several states, including the United States, Russia, and China at stake. Forming a consensus here will be tricky, but necessary for the evolution of any international regime that seeks to effectively regulate LAWS. This is also, however, an opportunity for India to push its strategic interests. The logic of multilateralism, which India has long advocated, must not overshadow the more fundamental logic of security.

The establishment of the GGE is only the first step in what will likely be a long drawn out process and it is highly unlikely that any significant decision will be reached by next year. It is, however, a very vital first step in shaping the future of war. India’s elevation as chair provides it with a unique opportunity to take a leadership role in global debates on this issue.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times.