Dan Lee is a government employee who works in Defense, and has varying levels of experience working with Five Eyes nations (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand).  He can be found on Twitter @danlee961.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Options for Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Five Eyes Alliance

Date Originally Written:  September 29, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  October 29, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is written from the point of view of Five Eyes national defense organizations. 

Background:  The Five Eyes community consists of the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), Canada, Australia and New Zealand; its origins can be traced to the requirement to cooperate in Signals Intelligence after World War Two[1]. Arguably, the alliance is still critical today in dealing with terrorism and other threats[2].

Autonomous systems may provide the Five Eyes alliance an asymmetric advantage, or ‘offset’, to counter its strategic competitors that are on track to field larger and more technologically advanced military forces. The question of whether or not to develop and employ Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) is currently contentious due to the ethical and social considerations involved with allowing machines to choose targets and apply lethal force without human intervention[3][4][5]. Twenty-six countries are calling for a prohibition on LAWS, while three Five Eyes partners (Australia, UK and the US) as well as other nations including France, Germany, South Korea and Turkey do not support negotiating new international laws on the matter[6]. When considering options, at least two issues must also be addressed.

The first issue is defining what LAWS are; a common lexicon is required to allow Five Eyes partners to conduct an informed discussion as to whether they can come to a common policy position on the development and employment of these systems. Public understanding of autonomy is mostly derived from the media or from popular culture and this may have contributed to the hype around the topic[7][8][8]. Currently there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a fully autonomous lethal weapon system, which has in turn disrupted discussions at the United Nations (UN) on how these systems should be governed by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWUN)[10]. The US and UK have different definitions, which makes agreement on a common position difficult even amongst like-minded nations[11][12]. This lack of lexicon is further complicated by some strategic competitors using more liberal definitions of LAWS, allowing them to support a ban while simultaneously developing weapons that do not require meaningful human control[13][14][15][16].

The second issue one of agreeing how autonomous systems might be employed within the Five Eyes alliance. For example, as a strategic offset technology, the use of autonomous systems might mitigate the relatively small size of their military forces relative to an adversary’s force[17]. Tactically, they could be deployed completely independently of humans to remove personnel from danger, as swarms to overwhelm the enemy with complexity, or as part of a human-machine team to augment human capabilities[18][19][20].

A failure of Five Eyes partners to come to a complete agreement on what is and is not permissible in developing and employing LAWS does not necessarily mean a halt to progress; indeed, this may provide the alliance with the ability for some partners to cover the capability gaps of others. If some members of the alliance choose not to develop lethal systems, it may free their resources to focus on autonomous Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) or logistics capabilities. In a Five Eyes coalition environment, these members who chose not to develop lethal systems could provide support to the LAWS-enabled forces of other partners, providing lethal autonomy to the alliance as whole, if not to individual member states.

Significance:  China and Russia may already be developing LAWS; a failure on the part of the Five Eyes alliance to actively manage this issue may put it at a relative disadvantage in the near future[21][22][23][24]. Further, dual-use civilian technologies already exist that may be adapted for military use, such as the Australian COTSbot and the Chinese Mosquito Killer Robot[25][26]. If the Five Eyes alliance does not either disrupt the development of LAWS by its competitors, or attain relative technological superiority, it may find itself starting in a position of disadvantage during future conflicts or deterrence campaigns.

Option #1:  Five Eyes nations work with the UN to define LAWS and ban their development and use; diplomatic, economic and informational measures are applied to halt or disrupt competitors’ LAWS programs. Technological offset is achieved by Five Eyes autonomous military systems development that focuses on logistics and ISR capabilities, such as Boston Dynamics’ LS3 AlphaDog and the development of driverless trucks to free soldiers from non-combat tasks[27][28][29][30].

Risk:  In the event of conflict, allied combat personnel would be more exposed to danger than the enemy as their nations had, in essence, decided to not develop a technology that could be of use in war. Five Eyes militaries would not be organizationally prepared to develop, train with and employ LAWS if necessitated by an existential threat. It may be too late to close the technological capability gap after the commencement of hostilities.

Gain:  The Five Eyes alliance’s legitimacy regarding human rights and the just conduct of war is maintained in the eyes of the international community. A LAWS arms race and subsequent proliferation can be avoided.

Option #2:  Five Eyes militaries actively develop LAWS to achieve superiority over their competitors.

Risk:  The Five Eyes alliance’s legitimacy may be undermined in the eyes of the international community and organizations such as The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the UN, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Public opinion in some partner nations may increasingly disapprove of LAWS development and use, which could fragment the alliance in a similar manner to the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty[31][32].

The declared development and employment of LAWS may catalyze a resource-intensive international arms race. Partnerships between government and academia and industry may also be adversely affected[33][34].

Gain:  Five Eyes nations avoid a technological disadvantage relative to their competitors; the Chinese information campaign to outmanoeuvre Five Eyes LAWS development through the manipulation of CCWUN will be mitigated. Once LAWS development is accepted as inevitable, proliferation may be regulated through the UN.

Other Comments:  None

Recommendation:  None.


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[2] Grayson, K. Time to bring ‘Five Eyes’ in from the cold? (May 4, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/time-bring-five-eyes-cold/

[3] Lange, K. 3rd Offset Strategy 101: What It Is, What the Tech Focuses Are (March 30, 2016). Retrieved from http://www.dodlive.mil/2016/03/30/3rd-offset-strategy-101-what-it-is-what-the-tech-focuses-are/

[4] International Committee of the Red Cross. Expert Meeting on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems Statement (November 15, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/en/document/expert-meeting-lethal-autonomous-weapons-systems

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[11] United States Department of Defense. Directive Number 3000.09. (November 21, 2012). Retrieved from https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=726163

[12] Lords AI committee: UK definitions of autonomous weapons hinder international agreement. (April 17, 2018). Retrieved from http://www.article36.org/autonomous-weapons/lords-ai-report/

[13] Group of Governmental Experts of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects – Geneva, 9–13 April 2018 (first week) Item 6 of the provisional agenda – Other matters. (11 April 2018). Retrieved from https://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/E42AE83BDB3525D0C125826C0040B262/$file/CCW_GGE.1_2018_WP.7.pdf

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[23] Mizokami, K. Kalashnikov Will Make an A.I.-Powered Killer Robot – What could possibly go wrong? (July 20, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/news/a27393/kalashnikov-to-make-ai-directed-machine-guns/

[24] Atherton, K. Combat robots and cheap drones obscure the hidden triumph of Russia’s wargame. (September 25, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.c4isrnet.com/unmanned/2018/09/24/combat-robots-and-cheap-drones-obscure-the-hidden-triumph-of-russias-wargame/

[25] Platt, J.R. A Starfish-Killing, Artificially Intelligent Robot Is Set to Patrol the Great Barrier Reef Crown of thorns starfish are destroying the reef. Bots that wield poison could dampen the invasion. (January 1, 2016) Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-starfish-killing-artificially-intelligent-robot-is-set-to-patrol-the-great-barrier-reef/

[26] Skinner, T. Presenting, the Mosquito Killer Robot. (September 14, 2016). Retrieved from https://quillorcapture.com/2016/09/14/presenting-the-mosquito-killer-robot/

[27] Defence Connect. DST launches Wizard of Aus. (November 10, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.defenceconnect.com.au/key-enablers/1514-dst-launches-wizard-of-aus

[28] Pomerleau, M. Air Force is looking for resilient autonomous systems. (February 24, 2016). Retrieved from https://defensesystems.com/articles/2016/02/24/air-force-uas-contested-environments.aspx

[29] Boston Dynamics. LS3 Legged Squad Support Systems. The AlphaDog of legged robots carries heavy loads over rough terrain. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.bostondynamics.com/ls3

[30] Evans, G. Driverless vehicles in the military – will the potential be realised? (February 2, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.army-technology.com/features/driverless-vehicles-military/

[31] Hambling, D. Why the U.S. Is Backing Killer Robots. (September 15, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a23133118/us-ai-robots-warfare/

[32] Ministry for Culture and Heritage. ANZUS treaty comes into force 29 April 1952. (April 26, 2017). Retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/anzus-comes-into-force

[33] Shalal, A. Researchers to boycott South Korean university over AI weapons work. (April 5, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tech-korea-boycott/researchers-to-boycott-south-korean-university-over-ai-weapons-work-idUSKCN1HB392

[34] Shane, S & Wakabayashi, D. ‘The Business of War’: Google Employees Protest Work for the Pentagon. (April 4, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/04/technology/google-letter-ceo-pentagon-project.html