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How international humanitarian law will constrain the use of autonomous weapon systems in the conduct of hostilities

Fisher, Benjamin Alexander (2022) How international humanitarian law will constrain the use of autonomous weapon systems in the conduct of hostilities. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis will assess International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Additional Protocol 1 (AP 1) compliance issues that may arise in the use of Autonomous Weapon Systems (AWSs) in the conduct of hostilities. The focus of this assessment will be on the use of AWSs to launch kinetic attacks. The basis for an assessment of AWSs will be identical to that of conventional weapons. AP 1 requires weapon systems to first be found to be in compliance with IHL weapons law before being subject to targeting law.

Novel compliance issues arise due to the use of autonomy in weapon systems. Algorithmically determined autonomy utilised to ‘decide’ to launch kinetic attacks raises questions of human control of a weapon system. AP 1 creates obligations on a human's decision to use force and the resulting kinetic attack. This is altered by the use of autonomy that controls the weapon system.

The focus therefore of any IHL evaluation must necessarily be on the computer that uses algorithmically determined autonomy to control AWSs. The type of algorithm that runs the weapon systems that this thesis will focus on is machine learning. Machine learning uses heuristics to provide the capability to improve AWSs performance over time. Setting the conditions for a constructive dialogue on AWSs, an AP 1 assessment on the lawfulness of AWSs will discuss both general issues; and additional issues that might arise in the use of autonomous weapon systems that improve upon their performance over time.

The use of algorithmically determined autonomy in kinetic attacks raises several controversies that must be assessed for weapons law and targeting law compliance. The use of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act Loop (OODA Loop) will be used to analyse whether human decision-making is being completely removed, or merely displaced from the targeting decision-making process. The operational context of how AWSs will be used will be assessed in temporal and geographic terms to better understand how technology has led to the displacement of human decision-making in weapon systems. Ultimately, this thesis will inform the reader of the legality and use of weapon systems that were once largely electro-mechanical platforms directly controlled by humans, to weapon systems that are increasingly cyber-physical controlled by algorithms.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Law and Criminology
Supervisor(s): Brohmer, Jurgen
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