04/16/2013 06:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

Reigning in the Killer Robot? The DoD's Directive on Autonomous Weapons

Late last year the U.S. Department of Defense issued DoD Directive 3000.09, addressing autonomy in weapons systems. The Directive is a first slice at framing policy prescriptions and demarcating lines of responsibility for the (future) creation and use of semi-autonomous, "human supervised" autonomous and fully autonomous weapons systems. In layman's terms, it attempts to answer the who, what, when, where and how of autonomous systems in military combat.

As many, myself included, have worried over the attribution of responsibility for such systems in the case of what the report titles "unintended engagement," the Directive is a welcomed first step. Why is this so? Because, it lays out clear lines of responsibility for creating guidelines for system development, testing and evaluation, equipment/weapons training, as well as developing doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures. Indeed, the explicit purpose of the Directive is to establish such guidelines to "minimize the probability and consequences of failures in autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons systems that could lead to unintended engagements." These "unintended engagements" refer to "the use of force resulting in damage to persons or objects that human operators did not intend to be the targets of U.S. military operations, including unacceptable levels of collateral damage beyond those consistent with the law of war, ROE, and commander's intent." Thus it appears that this report will assuage not merely my mind, but those in and outside the beltway, as well as those in and outside of the ivory tower.

Unfortunately, it does not. In fact, it only fosters more questions and worry. The principal cause of such worry: overriding all of the guidelines and policy put forth in this 15 page directive. How is this done? Well, the Directive basically states that there is a legal loop-hole allowing the overriding of said policies when two Undersecretaries of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deem it so. In short, when there is a quorum of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, then these three can skirt the very "safeguards" that the Directive lays down as DoD policy. This is disconcerting because the fielding of autonomous weapons then does not even raise to the level of the Secretary of Defense, let alone the president. Indeed, the potential for such "unintended engagements" does not even reach level 1 cabinet level decision making. Whether this is done for expediency or political cover is open to question, but what is not, is how such a policy undermines not only U.S. strategic command (as it removes two of the most crucial players in the persons of the Secretary of Defense and the president), but also erodes the very notion of "proper authority" in the jus ad bellum considerations for just war. Thus while we might, upon first glance, welcome the Directive, we should instead be highly critical of it, and further press the Pentagon to align itself with the laws of war and requisites thereof.