Analysis and Commentary

The Army can fire weapons autonomously, but should they?

Analysis and Commentary

By Peter Roberts

The news was inevitable in a way – the Army has confirmed that it has fired a weapon system at a simulated enemy remotely from an autonomous uncrewed vehicle (see here for full details).

The confirmation came in a blandly worded post by the Australian Army on social media that included pictures of autonomous M113 armoured vehicles mounted with Electro Optic Systems remote weapon stations (pictured). The vehicles were converted to autonomous operation by BAE Systems Australia.

Defence media had been buzzing with news for days of the tests, which are a first for Australia, though not new for defence forces overseas where remotely operated drones have been in use for many years.

According to the social media posts, the tests went smoothly. Trained troopers operated the vehicles from a distance and fired their weapons. Various drone systems advanced and mopped up the ‘enemy’.

Nothing controversial there, you might think.

But in the posts while we showed our armed forces could operate remote weapon systems, there was no mention of whether we should do so.

Australian defence personnel only rarely fire in anger at an enemy, and every Australian understands the extreme seriousness and the great risks involved in such a step.

But if no person actually pulls the trigger, but a machine controlled by a remote radio signal does so, shouldn’t this be something that the public are told about, and have some say in?

Do we want Australian robotic or remotely controlled weapons to be fired at an enemy?

Once in recent times Australia’s defence stance moved away from long held practice when the former Coalition government decided it was open slather to export offensive weapons to other nations.

Until then, it had been an unspoken policy that Australia would export only defensive systems – trucks rather than missiles if you will.

There was no public announcement and no debate at that time.

Now an even more important issue has raised its head – should Australian machines be authorised to kill?

I for one think this deserves more than social media posts – the risks and benefits need to be spelled out in public, and the public invited to have its say.

Further reading:
Uncrewed autonomous vehicle in weapons fire test

Picture: Australian Army

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