Mitigating the Risk of Autonomous Weapon Misuse by Insurgent Groups
2.1. How AI Transforms How Weapons Work
2.2. The Relevance of NSAGs
3. Acquisition Sources and Routes
3.1. Routes and Benefactors
3.2. Visibility and Movement
- Smart munitions and sensor-fused weapons (weapons that, after launch, search for a target signature and engage it) such as the BAE Bonus (BAE Systems 2020);
- Loitering systems (independent platforms which hover above a target area and search for a particular signature), such as the Harpy (Markoff 2014);
- Active protection and counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems, such as the Aegis and Goalkeeper (Scharre and Horowitz 2015);
- Anti-personnel perimeter defence, such as the South Korean SGR-A1 and South African Super aEgis II (Global Security 2017).
4. Reasons for Violations While in Use
4.1. Deliberate Misuse
4.2. Violation-Conducive Circumstances in the NSAG
4.3. Hand-Me-Down LOAC Non-compliant Weapons
4.4. Technical Reasons for Reckless Misuse
5. Focalising Responses
- AI reliability metrics (see, e.g., (Afonja 2017; Sharma 2019));
- The fact that AI are ‘narrow’ and can easily fail if deployed in environments for which they were not designed or tested (Yampolskiy 2020);
- That such failures are unintuitive; and
- The fact that systems may be opaque (thus potentially necessitating training in how to use XAI solutions) (Kwik and Van Engers 2021).
6. Closing Recommendations
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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These are variably referred to in discussions as ‘lethal autonomous robots’, ‘fully autonomous weapons’, and ‘killer robots’.
For summaries of the overall debate and the constituent points of contention, see (Cummings 2018; Eklund 2020; Lewis 2015; Santoni de Sio and van den Hoven 2018).
See Section 2.2.
This does not take away from the fact that some international armed conflicts can also be particularly violation-dense, as observed during the Yugoslav wars and the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war. However, existing literature on AWS plentifully addresses this type of conflict.
See Section 3.2.
While the conception of the specific technology being addressed varies significantly by source, one popular definition by the ICRC (Davison 2017) is formulated as follows: “Any weapon system with autonomy in its critical functions—that is, a weapon system that can select (search for, detect, identify, track or select) and attack (use force against, neutralize, damage or destroy) targets without human intervention”. For the lack of consensus on a definition in the international debate, see (Boulanin 2016).
This does not a priori exclude groups labelled as ’terrorist organisations’—strictly speaking a political designation—as long as they are parties to the conflict. For a more complete discussion on when terrorist groups qualify as parties under LOAC, see (Bartels 2018).
In addition, some are of the opinion that this argument cannot be resolved as it involves speculating how AI will develop in the future, which is not productive. See (Schuller 2017; UK Mission Geneva 2019; Wittes 2012).
For a graphical representation of the development of internal versus international armed conflicts, see (Harbom and Wallensteen 2005).
See Section 4.
See Section 3.
See www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers, accessed on 10 October 2022.
The cited study uses this term in the colloquial sense, i.e., referring to groups or persons migrating for fear of harm (instead of in a legal sense, which carries legal consequences for the persons in question).
See Section 3.2.
The experience of the catastrophic US retreat from Afghanistan and the subsequent looting of US weapons by the Taliban (Weaver 2021), however, shows that ’stronger governments’ are not necessarily exempt from this scenario.
Most internal conflicts feature a government which has much higher arms sophistication compared to the NSAGs, as it had a weapons monopoly before the conflict outbreak (Pamp et al. 2018). In some situations, however, the government may be as weak as the NSAG. These conflicts are termed ‘symmetric nonconventional’ by (Kalyvas and Balcells 2010). Even in this case, however, the NSAG has an interest in overcoming the stalemate by obtaining and using stronger weapons, such as AWS.
Depending on the system in question, however, this can also take other forms. (McAllister 2018), for instance, discusses a hypothetical ’AI interrogator’ which, in NSAG hands, can also be misused in contravention to the prohibition on torture.
(Additional Protocol II 1977) only encourages (instead of obliges) States to “grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict”. See also (Kleffner 2007).
This is purely a logistical remark; it does not mean that NSAGs are excused from using blatantly illegal weapons merely because they claim not to have the technical or legal expertise to evaluate them upon obtention. LOAC principles governing weapon use apply equally to States as to NSAGs. See (Sivakumaran 2006; Special Court for Sierra Leone 2004).
See and compare: (ICRC 2006; Jevglevskaja 2018).
If taking into consideration extra-LOAC norms, this risk can be reduced through arms control or disarmament regimes. We discuss this as a potential solution in Section 6.
Collateral damage is usually calculated with the help of collateral damage estimation (CDE) software, which also requires technical expertise. See, e.g., (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff 2012).
Indeed, this is often the reason cited for why NSAGs prefer small arms in the first place. See (Jackson 2011).
Note that by itself, this treaty would not be sufficient to mitigate all risks identified in Section 4 because the obligation in Art. 6 only triggers if there is ‘knowledge’ that it will be misused. In many situations we discussed, particularly related to technical reasons, there is no certainty that such misuse will occur.
COTS software and subsystems are already part of many military systems today, indicating a trend in that direction. See (Cummings 2018; DoD Defense Science Board 2016; Scherer 2016).
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Kwik, J. Mitigating the Risk of Autonomous Weapon Misuse by Insurgent Groups. Laws 2023, 12, 5. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws12010005
Kwik J. Mitigating the Risk of Autonomous Weapon Misuse by Insurgent Groups. Laws. 2023; 12(1):5. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws12010005Chicago/Turabian Style
Kwik, Jonathan. 2023. "Mitigating the Risk of Autonomous Weapon Misuse by Insurgent Groups" Laws 12, no. 1: 5. https://doi.org/10.3390/laws12010005