Does the EU want to ban or regulate lethal autonomous weapons?

MQ-9 Reaper. Photo credits: National Defense Magazine.

International debates on the use of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWs), often described as “killer robots”, are reviewing conflicting viewpoints by state actors. At UN level, at least 28 governments (all non-EU) are demanding a ban on artificial intelligence weapons while other major military powers such as the US and Russia see LAWs as ‘crucial’ for their military capabilities. As the UN talks repeatedly end in stalemates, the EU is struggling with its role in the international regulation efforts.

According to Euractiv, the international discussions on these LAWS have so far sought to address the ramifications of autonomous weapons systems on human rights as well as the ethical and security issues that arise as part of the assimilation of such systems into modern warfare. These discussions have however not resulted in concrete actions as the US and Russia have blocked any moves to form legally binding agreements.

In Europe however, there is a common sentiment towards the prohibition of lethal autonomous weapon as three in every four Europeans want their government to advocate for a strict ban as is showed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in a recent conducted poll. A report by PAX describes that all European states agree there is a ‘red line’ beyond which increasing autonomy in offensive weapons systems is no longer acceptable. There seems to be agreement that human control is the central element in the debate and the use of LAWs have to comply with legal and ethical norms.

The EU took a stance against “killer robots” last year when the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for an international ban on the development, production and use of weapons that kill without human involvement. Despite this communicates a common agreement, the EU has so far not been able to move towards legal binding agreements on an international level.

As perhaps one can understand that on an international level major military players such as the US and Russia can hinder legal advancements, it’s less admissible that even on an EU level it’s not ensured that LAWs don’t find their way into the EU’s military initiative or research conducted under the European Defence Fund (EDF). In this line, the Green MEP Hannah Neumann stressed that there is no full framework yet in place and the EDF statutes include an own ethical committee controlling funding proposals. This without the power of oversight from the European Parliament.

New bilateral projects such as the future European next-generation fighter jet (FCAS) will also include a range of associated weapons, such as swarms of unmanned aerial carriers (drones) interconnected by a cloud and highly advanced cruise missiles. This weaponry easily allows for adding on LAWs-components to make the systems autonomous.

Seen the (failure of) actions taken by the EU, it thus remains questionable to what extent the EU truly wants to regulate the use of offensive lethal autonomous weapon systems.