Future Unmanned System Technologies

Legal and Ethical Implications of Increasing Automation

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col



, GE


Joint Air Power Competence Centre

By Ms

By Ms

 Maria Beatrice


, IT

 November 2016
Warfare Domains: Air Operations


The number of unmanned systems in NATO nations’ military inventories has grown rapidly and is still increasing throughout all domains. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) currently represent the largest share of those systems. At the same time, the level of automation built into these unmanned systems has not only increased significantly, but has also reached a level of sophistication at which they are seemingly capable of performing many tasks ‘autonomously’ and with no necessity for direct human supervision. Although it is a common understanding within NATO that autonomous capabilities should not be integrated into lethal weapon systems, there are systems already in service which can be considered to almost have approached that limit, e.g., highly automated cannon-based air defence systems such as Skyshield1 or Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS) such as Phalanx.2 These systems are capable of firing at incoming targets automatically, within seconds of detection of a target, assuming this mode of operation has been activated.

Under the umbrella of 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,’ the United Nations (UN) conducted informal expert meetings on the topic of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) in 2014, 2015 and 2016.3 Succeeding a Multinational Capability Development Campaign (MCDC) on the ‘Role of Autonomous Systems in Gaining Operational Access’,4 Allied Command Transformation (ACT) is currently working on a ‘Counter Unmanned Autonomous Systems’ concept for the Alliance.5 However, international law, as well as NATO doctrine, does not currently address the potential legal and ethical issues which may arise from the use of highly automated weapon systems.

Aim and Methodology

The aim of this document is to outline potential legal and ethical implications of introducing highly automated unmanned systems to the national inventories of NATO’s members and partners.
The study provides a brief overview of the current state of technology in the field of system automation and looks at possible future developments. As there is no definition of an autonomous weapon in NATO yet6, it also proposes a set of levels or tiers of automation/autonomy which may be used as a common baseline within NATO to define what autonomy actually is, where it begins and how it delineates itself from ­automation.
After introducing the basic principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), often also referred to as Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), the study outlines the legal requirements a highly automated unmanned system has to meet if NATO nations seeks to introduce this kind of technology and wants to comply with IHL. Moreover, it discusses the potential consequences and responsibilities if automated functions violate international law or cause unintended harm.

Finally, the study briefly discusses the ethical implications of using highly automated systems in military operations and gives an assessment of what may or may not be accepted in NATO.

On behalf of the German Bundeswehr, Rheinmetall has developed the ‘Mantis’ (Modular, Automatic and Network capable Targeting and Interception System) air defence system which is a modified and improved version of the ‘Skyshield’ with six fully automated turrets. According to Rheinmetall, it is the most advanced system of its kind worldwide, and it reliably protects military installations such as forward operating bases and other vital facilities from incoming rockets, artillery and mortar rounds. Rheinmetall Defence, Fresh success for Rheinmetall in air defence: MENA nation places new €83 million order (accessed 6 Oct. 2016); available from http://www.rheinmetall-defence.com/en/rheinmetall_defence/public_relations/news/archive_2014/details_5120.php.
At sea, the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System –a rapid-fire, computer-controlled, radar-guided gun system – is designed to defeat anti-ship missiles and other close-in air and surface threats. The Land-based Phalanx Weapon System is part of the U.S. Army’s Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar systems used to detect and destroy incoming rounds in the air before they hit their ground targets. Raytheon, Phalanx Close-In Weapon System – Last Line of Defense for air, land and sea, (accessed 6 Oct. 2016); available from http://www.raytheon.com/capabilities/products/phalanx/.
The United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), Background – Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (accessed 6 Oct. 2016); available from http://www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/8FA3C2562A60FF81C1257CE600393DF6?OpenDocument.
NATO Allied Command Transformation, Multinational Capability Development Campaign (MCDC) 2013–2014, Role of Autonomous Systems in Gaining Operational Access, Policy Guidance, Autonomy in Defence Systems (Artur Kuptel and Andrew Williams, MCDC, 2014)
NATO Allied Command Transformation, Innovation Hub, How to Counter Unmanned Autonomous Systems? (accessed 6 Oct. 2016); available from http://innovationhub-act.org/AxSCountermeasures.
The NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions does not contain a definition for ‘Autonomy’ or an ‘Autonomous Weapon System’ yet. However, it refers to ‘Autonomous Munitions’ when defining ‘Arming Delay Device’ but without providing any further explanation on the autonomous munitions term. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions (AAP-06) (NATO, 2015)
Content Navigation
Lieutenant Colonel
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Lieutenant Colonel Haider began his military career with the German Armed Forces in April 1992. He initially served as a Personnel NCO in the 150th Rocket Artillery Battalion HQ. Following his promotion to Lieutenant in 1998, he took on the role of an MLRS platoon leader within the same battalion. After three years, he transitioned to the position of CIS Branch Head at the 150th Rocket Artillery Battalion HQ. Subsequently, Lieutenant Colonel Haider was assigned to the 325th Tank Artillery Battalion, where he served as a battery commander before assuming command of the maintenance and supply battery. In 2008, he was appointed as the commander of the maintenance and supply company within the 284th Signal Battalion. His responsibilities expanded in 2010 when he became the Deputy Commander of the German support staff for the 1st NATO Signal Battalion. As a follow-on assignment, he served as the Deputy Battalion Commander of the 132nd Rocket Artillery Battalion.

Since 2012, Lieutenant Colonel Haider has been a Subject Matter Expert for Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Countering Unmanned Aircraft Systems within the JAPCC Combat Air Branch. Lieutenant Colonel Haider represents the JAPCC in and contributes to several key NATO groups, including the NATO Joint Capability Group Unmanned Aircraft Systems, the NATO Counter-UAS Working Group, and the NATO Joint Capability Group Maritime Unmanned Systems.

Information provided is current as of April 2024
 Maria Beatrice
Information provided is current as of February 2022

Contact Us

Contact Information

Joint Air Power Competence Centre
Römerstrasse 140
47546 Kalkar

+49 (0) 2824 90 2201

Request for Support

Please leave us a message

Contact Form