The Future of Weaponized Unmanned Systems: Challenges and Opportunities

GGF 2025 Global Arms Control Governance Working Group

July 2015


In recent years, challenges concerning the use of weaponized unmanned systems (WUS) – airborne, seaborne or on the ground – have taken the world stage in political and military planning efforts. This trend will continue over the next decade, as these weapon systems have inevitable implications for security and defense strategy among major international actors and smaller actors alike. Addressing the challenges to global security and stability will require determined action by national actors, non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations.

This report presents two hypothetical scenarios and argues that the state of international peace by the year 2025 will depend largely on whether state and non-state actors are capable of designing an effective political and legal framework for regulating the use of WUS without infringing on their profound commercial capabilities.

In the first scenario, WUS exist as linchpins in both the expanded war on terror and conventional interstate conflicts. The scenario highlights that weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles (WUAVs) are likely to continue playing a role in military efforts against global jihadi terrorism, with a growing degree of autonomy. These technologies also feature prominently in important regional conflicts. Against this backdrop, technical failures of WUS – such as hacking and spoofing by terrorists and rogue states – pose a significant threat to safety and security. There exist regional efforts to establish international legislation, but they are thwarted by dominant powers that, in their expanded efforts to combat terrorism on foreign soil, are reliant on WUS. In this scenario, an effective global legal regime on WUS is unlikely to come into being by 2025.

In contrast, our second scenario features an emerging international legal order. The driving force of this development is the perception of a common threat to major actors that possess WUS technology. Here, the threat of international terrorism extends beyond the United States and other Western countries, to Russia and China. In this scenario, terrorist exploitation of weaknesses in these systems in Europe and Asia creates the political context for stricter regulation. In addition, this scenario considers private-sector interests. The dual-use aspect of unmanned systems, especially unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is represented by a thriving commercial UAV industry, transforming logistics and transportation. Private-sector resistance to regulation that could obstruct market potential is counterbalanced by government incentives to prevent the weaponization of small-scale commercial UAVs. This scenario concludes with the establishment of a workable international regime on WUS, wherein governments agree to regulate the most-advanced systems with the highest degree of autonomy, which only a few countries possess as of 2025.

Several policy recommendations arise from these scenarios:

1. Propose a legal framework to govern the production, accumulation, distribution and use of semi-autonomous WUS and to ban fully autonomous WUS;

2. Diversify the policy conversation across the continuum of applications of unmanned vehicles;

3. Create a policy forum to establish dialogue about applicable standards;

4. Seek political-power balance, and seize opportunities for agreement;

5. Address technical challenges posed by unmanned systems.