<< view all Publications

Perils of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems Proliferation: Preventing Non-State Acquisition

Strategic Security Analysis - 2018


Mr Philip Chertoff

Release Date:

October 2018

Download publication

Terrorist groups, illicit organisations, and other non-state actors have a long fascination with advanced weapons technologies. In the early 90s, the Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo pursued multiple avenues to develop chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, eventually succeeding in the creation and deployment of Sarin gas. Throughout the late 90s, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda allegedly made numerous attempts to acquire nuclear material from illicit actors. Starting in 2004, Hezbollah has been deploying Iranian-made, military-grade drones for surveillance and engagement.

Despite the relative success of less sophisticated weapons, and the substantial expense and difficulty of acquisition for more advanced systems, non-state actors continue to pursue advanced weapons for two significant reasons. For less funded, less powerful non-state actors, advanced weapons substantially increase the scale of the force they can wield against enemies—they promise to “level the playing field”. Advanced weapon systems also offer a significant reputational and symbolic benefit to non-state actors, as the ownership of such weapons confer a status limited to only a handful of powerful nations. States have long recognized these risks, and established numerous arms and export controls to restrict and regulate the transfer of massively destructive weapons.

However, international efforts to restrict proliferation of such weapons are currently lagging behind the emergence of new, possibly as-destructive, technologies. In particular, the last few years have marked the rapid development of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). Considering their potential to escalate conflicts and inflict massive collateral damage, the international community has long been debating necessary restrictions on the implementation of autonomy in weapons systems, even considering a ban on fully-autonomous systems. However, such conversations have largely been limited to state use. The international community has been painfully slow to address the possible acquisition and use of LAWS by non-state actors.

Key Points

  • Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) promise significant military advantages to developing states.
  •  Many states have significant ethical and legal concerns about the potential for systems to destabilise conflicts and inflict collateral damage.
  •  Malicious non-state actors also have the potential to leverage LAWS for significant military advantage against state actors and acts of terror.
  • The international community has not focused adequate attention on the potential for LAWS to proliferate to malicious non-state actors.
  •  The international community should implement export controls on LAWS, through the Wassenaar arrangement, to reduce the risk of transfer to malicious non-state actors.