In September 2019 a swarm of 18 bomb-laden drones and seven cruise missiles overwhelmed Saudi Arabia's advanced air defenses to crash into the Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields and their processing facilities. The surprisingly sophisticated attack, which Yemen's Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for, halved the nation's output of crude oil and natural gas and forced an increase in global oil prices. The drones were likely not fully autonomous, however: they did not communicate with one another to pick their own targets, such as specific storage tanks or refinery buildings. Instead each drone appears to have been preprogrammed with precise coordinates to which it navigated over hundreds of kilometers by means of a satellite positioning system.

Fully autonomous weapons systems (AWSs) may be operating in war theaters even as you read this article, however. Turkey has announced plans to deploy a fleet of autonomous Kargu quadcopters against Syrian forces in early 2020, and Russia is also developing aerial swarms for that region. Once launched, an AWS finds, tracks, selects and attacks targets with violent force, all without human supervision.

Autonomous weapons are not self-aware, humanoid “Terminator” robots conspiring to take over; they are computer-controlled tanks, planes, ships and submarines. Even so, they represent a radical change in the nature of warfare. Humans are outsourcing the decision to kill to a machine—with no one watching to ascertain the legitimacy of an attack before it is carried out. Since the mid-2000s, when the U.S. Department of Defense triggered a global artificial-intelligence arms race by signaling its intent to develop autonomous weapons for all branches of the armed forces, every major power and several lesser ones have been striving to acquire these systems. According to U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, China is already exporting AWSs to the Middle East.

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