The world is at the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution which will fundamentally affect every facet of human society, including warfare. While innovation in weapon technology is as old as warfare itself, the rise of new weapon technologies like cyberwarfare and autonomous weapons has raised fundamental questions about the impact of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) on the battlefields of tomorrow.

Carnegie India organized a roundtable in New Delhi, led by Kathleen Lawand, head of the arms unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The roundtable was attended by leading government functionaries and representatives of the armed forces and civil society.

Discussion Highlights

  • New Technologies: The move toward the adoption of new weapon technologies is part of a long history of advancement in methods of warfare, participants said. The need to protect soldiers from harm will always be an overriding factor for any military, and new weapon technologies, especially autonomous weapons, do this very effectively. However, all participants agreed that the parties to an armed conflict do not have an unlimited choice in the means of warfare. States have a legal requirement under international law to undertake a review of every new weapon system that they develop.
  • Importance of Definitions: Participants commented that there is no consensus yet on the definition of ‘cyberwarfare’ and ‘autonomous weapons.’ Without a widely accepted definition, it becomes difficult to understand what may be regulated and what may not and indeed, what weapon system is the focus of the discussion and what lies outside the ambit of the same.
  • Cyberwarfare: Participants discussed how cyberwarfare throws up two fundamental challenges. The first is determining what constitutes an 'attack' under cyberwarfare and the second is differentiating between civilian and military infrastructure. Civilian and military cyber-infrastructure are very often intertwined and adequately differentiating between the two poses a major challenge not only to militaries worldwide but also to ensuring that cyberattacks meet the standards set by IHL. Participants agreed that any form of cyberwarfare will not fall squarely within the brackets of current IHL and may require either re-interpretation of current international law or the adoption of an entirely new set of international norms.  
  • Autonomous Weapons: The move towards greater weapon autonomy will be gradual, participants argued. A number of weapon systems currently in use have autonomous components and the arrival and use of completely autonomous weapons may happen without any grand announcements. There is therefore a need to effectively determine when an automated weapon turns into an autonomous weapon.
  • Accountability: From the perspective of IHL, autonomous weapons put forward one overarching challenge, that of accountability, participants said. Because autonomous weapons are designed to replace humans in the field of battle, it raises the question of who will be held accountable if an autonomous weapon violates IHL during the course of its operations. Further, participants added, the level of artificial intelligence required to ensure that autonomous weapons exhibit the same level of on-field intelligence as humans may bring into question the competence of such technologies in adhering to IHL. Participants commented that, despite these concerns, it is important to keep in mind the potential benefits that automated and autonomous weapons provide to militaries and to civilian populations. One participant pointed out that autonomous weapons may not only be better able to adhere to IHL but may also ensure better compliance from human soldiers in the field.
  • Implementation of an International Regime: Given the current asymmetries in technical capabilities globally, it will be difficult to bring states together to discuss, negotiate, and implement an international regime that effectively governs the use of these new technologies in warfare, participants warned. Further, given that much of the potential damage attributed to the weaponization of new technologies is possible with existing conventional weapons, most states would be reluctant to create a specific international regime to govern the use of such weapon systems. Participants contended that there is thus a need to study if the use of such weapon systems gives rise to consequences of a new magnitude.
  • New Challenges: In conclusion, participants said, the basic issue is not whether new weapon technologies are illegal per se but how these technologies are going to be used in military conflicts. The rise of the nonstate actors and their scale, scope, and access to technology has posed whole new questions to states and the application of international humanitarian law. The foundational idea of ‘legality’ has also changed from when the principles of IHL were first adopted, participants added, as can be seen by the basic fact that states no longer declare war on each other. The desire for victory produces its own outcomes and the emergence of new weapon technologies is inevitable.
  • An Indian Perspective: Participants argued that it is imperative for India to develop a pragmatic approach to new weapons technologies that avoids getting stuck on definitions. Indian policymakers must look at the consequences of the use of such technologies and its own security concerns.


This event summary was prepared by R. Shashank Reddy, a research assistant with Carnegie India.