Assistant Head, US and the Americas Programme
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs

Based on a scenario exercise in which China becomes the first country to use autonomous weapons against an adversary – Vietnam – this paper finds that while this did not cause a significant rift between the US and Europe, differing approaches might lead to further divisions in the future.

Unmanned aerial vehicle Wing Loong on display during the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition at Zhuhai Airshow Center on 2 November 2016 in Zhuhai, China. Photo VCG/VCG via Getty Images.Unmanned aerial vehicle Wing Loong on display during the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition at Zhuhai Airshow Center on 2 November 2016 in Zhuhai, China. Photo via Getty Images.

Summary

  • In October 2016 Chatham House brought together 25 participants to consider US and European responses in a scenario in which China becomes the first country to use autonomous weapons against an adversary – in this case Vietnam. This was the fourth and final in a series of scenario roundtables organized by Chatham House to explore possible areas of divergence in US–European relations and develop recommendations as to what actions could be taken to bridge such differences and build more effective partnerships in the future. (The first three scenarios involved respectively a conflict between China and Japan, a potential breakdown in the Iran nuclear deal, and a conflict between Turkey and Russia.)
  • The simulation did not reveal a major political or policy split between the US and Europe, or within Europe. It drew out sharply the distinction between the broad humanitarian and geopolitical views about the emergent class of weapons based on autonomous systems. But it also suggested that such divergences for the moment can be handled within the framework of existing intergovernmental arrangements.
  • Neither the US nor Europe seems inclined to pursue a ban on autonomous weapons in the near future. However, their divergent views of arms-control measures in general – with the US regarding them in strategic terms and Europeans in more humanitarian terms – could point towards a split if autonomous weapons become commonplace.
  • The simulation included the defence industry and the NGO community. The latter was largely at odds with governments and pursued a strategy to bring about a preventive ban on the development and use of autonomous weapons, but it failed to gain traction. By contrast, the defence industry seemed more concerned that the governments would try to enforce a code of conduct on it rather than regulating their own use of autonomous weapons.