At first glance, the recent revamp of the Pentagon’s policy on Autonomy in Weapons Systems may appear daunting to defense officials working on robotic weapons. The 15-page document “Autonomy in Weapons Systems” is now extended to 24 pages, which includes numerous ethical precepts to be observed in new weapons programs, a full-page flowchart of decisions that officials must make, and an Autonomous Weapon Systems Working Group to keep an eye on this.

Advocates and experts said that the revised policy is similar to R2-D2; it is helpful and has many valuable features. By including clarifications, a flowchart, and a working group to act as a central hub, the 2023 update of DoD Directive 3000.09 converts the review process initially established in 2012 into a step-by-step procedure that can be followed. Notably, it does not impose significant new restrictions on the design of autonomous weapons.

Michael Klare, a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association, commented that this could come across as an additional layer of control and regulation, which might come across as intimidating. 

“On one hand, it sounds like this is adding more layers of control and regulation, and that might sound daunting,” said Michael Klare, a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. “On the other hand, I think it’s meant to give a green light to commanders and project managers, [because] they can proceed with a clear understanding of what they’re going to have to go through and what criteria they’re going to have to satisfy.”

“Under the earlier directive, there was more ambiguity,” he said. “It makes it easier.”

The Pentagon has yet to have a weaponry system that has gone through the review process mandated by the Department of Defense Directive 3000.09. A spokesperson stated in 2019 that, up to this point, no such weapon has even been subject to the Senior Review. This could mean that either no proposed program has had the conditions that would necessitate the review or, alternatively, a waiver was granted to any such program due to an urgent military requirement. The new and old policies would then allow the Deputy Secretary of Defense to waive the review in such cases.

Mary Wareham, a founding coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, reported during a Jan. 30 briefing that Pentagon representatives declined to address queries regarding the utilization of the process when questioned, which is a departure from the explicitness of the 2019 statement. 

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In order to fulfill its purpose, MDA must make a selection and provide a production contract to NGI before it is required to be able to deploy it quickly.