International Discussions Concerning Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems
(Source: Congressional Research Services; issued Oct 15, 2020)
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), or weapons designed to independently select and engage targets without the need for manual human control, could enable military operations in communications-degraded or -denied environments where traditional systems may not be able to operate.

LAWS are not yet in widespread development. However, as technology advances—particularly artificial intelligence (AI)—a larger number of countries may consider developing and operating LAWS. This could hold potential implications for congressional oversight, defense investments, military concepts of operations, treaty-making, and the future of warfare.

As has been the case throughout history, incorporation of new technology into weapons systems creates a number of potential legal, ethical, strategic, and operational problems.
For this reason, some members of the international community seek through international discussions to constrain—if not ban—LAWS.

What Are LAWS?

Definitions. No single, universally accepted definition of LAWS is used in international discussions. However, Department of Defense Directive 3000.09, which establishes U.S. policy on autonomy in weapons systems, defines LAWS as “weapon system[s] that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.” This definition’s principal characteristic, then is the role of the human operator with regard to target selection and engagement decisions.

Other countries such as the United Kingdom, however, have grounded their definition of LAWS on different characteristics, in particular the technological sophistication of the weapon system, such that LAWS are considered to be weapon systems capable of human-level cognition. Still others do not believe that a definition of LAWS is required—or desirable—for international discussions.

Despite these differences, most parties to the LAWS discussions generally agree that the defining features of LAWS include full autonomy (no manual human control of the system) and the potential to produce lethal effects.


Although the pursuit of LAWS is not yet widespread, some analysts have argued that Israel’s Harpy loitering munition—which the weapon’s manufacturer, IAI, describes as being fully autonomous—qualifies. Israel has exported the Harpy to Chile, China, India, South Korea, and Turkey. Similarly, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has noted that Chinese manufacturer Ziyan has advertised a fully autonomous system, the Blowfish A3 helicopter drone, which it has reportedly exported to the Middle East.

In addition, according to a report by the Defense Innovation Board, the United States developed LAWS during the1980s but no longer has LAWS in its inventory.

International Forum for LAWS Discussions

The international community examines the implications of LAWS in discussions held primarily under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a multilateral arms control agreement to which the United States became a party in 1982. The CCW’s purpose is to “ban or restrict the use of specific types of weapons that are considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately.”

Click here for the full report (3 PDF pages), on the CRS website.


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