India’s integration of autonomous weapons raises complex legal, ethical and security issues

It will increase the potential for conflict escalation, military confrontations, instability and undermine cooperative security efforts

The defense strategies have always been affected by technological changes. In today’s warfare, autonomous systems are reshaping strategies. Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar of the Indian Navy recently introduced the Drishti-10 Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). This demonstrates India’s commitment to military modernization by leveraging cutting-edge technology of autonomous weapons systems such as MQ-9B Reaper Drone, S-400 anti-Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems, deploying munitions like Harpy among others. As Chief Admiral Kumar expressed the importance of advancements in autonomous technology on the state’s domestic front, India’s diplomatic efforts within the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) highlight its global political challenge to avoid abiding by the regulations and take the higher seat in the field of emerging military technologies. 

Subsequently, India’s proactive engagement in the GGE within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) signals an effort to avoid international regulation on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS). The international community is also cautiously observing the integration of LAWS in defense strategies, amidst ongoing conflicts such as the Palestinian genocide, the Russia-Ukraine, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

India has been pursuing the advancements related to LAWS, notably through its engagement with the High Contracting Parties of the CCW related to emerging technologies, in the area of LAWS. On one hand, India is portraying its support for regulation of LAWS through its chairing of the forum during the formulation of eleven guiding principles on LAWS. On the other hand, it is continuously developing its military capabilities through LAWS. Instead of advocating for a legally binding instrument, India advocates for a “political declaration,” wherein, high-level declarations prompt state parties to craft national policies and regulatory frameworks based on agreed-upon principles. 

Meanwhile, the lack of consensus on early regulation allows India to harness lethal autonomous technology without the constraints of a legally binding instrument. India views this approach as instrumental in facilitating progress and access to technology for development and procurement through advanced weapon technology states. However, the GGE has faced criticism, particularly through campaigns of Human Rights Watch, Stop Killer Robots, and Article 36 of the Geneva Convention. They are raising concerns regarding the respective forum’s efficacy in regulating LAWS amid the active pursuit of technology for military purposes by states like India.

In his 2023 New Agenda for Peace, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his call, recommending to States to conclude a legally binding instrument by 2026. This instrument would prohibit LAWS that function without human control or oversight. It would also prohibit LAWS that cannot be used in compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and regulate all other types of autonomous weapons systems. Analysts contend that the consensus mechanism within the GGE has been exploited by certain state parties developing autonomous weapons to impede the development of a binding international instrument for their regulation. India’s decision to oppose the December 2023 resolution of the CCW – aimed at soliciting member and observer states’ perspectives on addressing LAWS-related issues – reflects its stance on recent developments. India argues that such a resolution would result in redundant resource allocation. India also portrays itself as a promoter of sustained discussions within the GGE, while hindering the ban of such technologies so that it can continue its military modernization through these technologies.

Conversely, while supporting the establishment of a legally binding framework to regulate the military use of these technologies, states highlight the need to strike a balance between harnessing their socio-economic potential and mitigating destructive military applications. They support the principle of fair, unconditional, and equitable access to new technologies for all countries, opposing undue restrictions that may lead to discrimination and hinder scientific progress. Nevertheless, the increasing digitalization of warfare poses challenges of political, legal, normative, and ethical perspective i.e. accountability and responsibility. This demands collective attention and concerted efforts to establish norms, regulations, and safeguards, and the CCW meeting, in a small way, is contributing to that exercise.

The pursuit of lethal technologies raises ethical questions regarding their use in warfare and the potential humanitarian consequences. States must grapple with the moral implications of deploying autonomous weapons systems and other advanced military technologies, balancing national security imperatives with IHL and ethical principles. Ultimately, the convergence of Indian greed for power and pride in lethal technologies poses significant risks to regional stability and peace. Heightened militarization, technological competition, and the potential for miscalculation or unintended escalation threaten to undermine efforts for conflict resolution and cooperative security in South Asia.

Last but not least, India’s pursuit of LAWS will also impact the security of the region and beyond. India’s international diplomatic efforts entangle the regulation process for LAWS while actively positioning itself for military technology. This stance enables India to advance its military capabilities without stringent constraints. Regionally, it will increase the potential for conflict escalation, military confrontations, instability and undermine cooperative security efforts. Globally, the proliferation of LAWS without stringent international regulations may undermine existing arms control frameworks, erode trust among nations, and spur other countries to accelerate their own autonomous weapons programs. Overall, India’s approach could lead to a more militarized and less stable international environment, challenging global security and peacekeeping efforts.

In the face of growing concerns about the legal, ethical, and security implications, there are risks associated with the deployment of LAWS. India’s approach to advocating for a “political declaration” rather than a legally binding instrument underscores the lack of interest –regulating such technologies with the imperatives of IHL. As nations navigate this delicate balance, the pursuit of lethal technologies highlights the need for sustained dialogue and cooperation to mitigate the risks of unintended escalation and conflict, instead of focusing solely on their development and deployment.

Muhammad Ali Baig is a Research Officer at the Center for Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad.

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt