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Meaning-less Human Control

Air defence systems set problematic precedents for what counts as meaningful human control argues new report by CWS’ Ingvild Bode and Tom Watts

By Ingvild Bode, 2/24/2021

A new report, Meaning-less Human Control, written by Ingvild Bode (Centre for War Studies) and Tom Watts (University of Hertfordshire) published in collaboration with Drone Wars UK argues that decades of developing, testing, and using air defence systems with automated and autonomous features have incrementally diminished meaningful human control in specific use of force situations.

The study builds on a qualitative data catalogue of 28 air defence systems (ADS) and analyses high-profile failures of such systems, such as the January 2020 downing of Ukraine Airlines PS752. In focusing on the consequences of using existing systems with autonomous features, the report departs from the future focus of the international debate on LAWS.

ADS have proliferated globally to at least 89 states. As more and more tasks have been delegated to machines, human operators of ADS have come to fulfill minimal but at the same time impossibly complex roles. They lack a functional understanding of the targeting process, they lack situational understanding, and they lack the time to properly think about decisions. Taken together, this means that the quality of human control has become meaningless rather than meaningful.

The report argues that this process shapes an emerging norm, a standard of appropriateness, among states. This norm attributes humans a diminished role in specific use of force decisions. But the international debate on LAWS is yet to acknowledge or scrutinize this norm. If this continues, the potential international efforts to regulate LAWS through codifying meaningful human control will be undermined. Understanding this empirical process of practices making norms is also the analytical focus of the new ERC-funded research project AUTONORMS led by Ingvild Bode (08/2020-07/2025). 

Find the report here:


Editing was completed: 24.02.2021