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DOD Updates Autonomy in Weapons System Directive

The Defense Department just updated DoD Directive 3000.09, Autonomy in Weapon Systems, which governs the development and fielding of autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems. 

The core of the directive remains unchanged. DOD updated the directive due to advances in technology, changes in the structure of the department and changes in the security environment. 

An unmanned aircraft is tethered to a military vehicle in a desert environment.
A U.S. Army Origin autonomous weapons system uses a tethered unmanned aerial system to help soldiers perform reconnaissance of an area during Project Convergence 22 experimentation Oct. 26, 2022, on Fort Irwin, Calif. The experiment incorporates technologies and concepts from all services and from multinational partners, including in the areas of autonomy, augmented reality, tactical communications, advanced manufacturing, unmanned aerial systems and long-range fires.
Photo By: U.S. Army Spc. Jaaron Tolley
VIRIN: 221026-A-DO505-0044Y

The department has been a global leader in the responsible development and use of weapon systems with autonomous functions, first issuing DoDD 3000.09 in 2012. DOD requires extensive testing, reviews and management oversight for the approval of any weapon systems. DoDD 3000.09 requires something more – a review by senior officials prior to the development and deployment of any autonomous weapon systems that do not meet specific exemptions. 

The department is committed "to developing and employing all weapon systems, including those with autonomous features and functions, in a responsible and lawful manner," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks in a written statement. The directive is a demonstration of this commitment in action. 

Technology has advanced, and changes to the directive reflect these advancements. The update "will help ensure [that] we can remain on the cutting edge not only of developing and deploying new systems, but also safety," the deputy secretary said. 

A second official, speaking on background, stressed that the update to the directive is "a clarification, not a major change." DOD leaders believe the original 2012 directive remains fundamentally sound, but after a decade, it was due for some tweaks. "The updated directive is one part of a series of DOD policies that establish [good] governance surrounding military uses of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence," the official said. 

The directive remains aimed at ensuring that commanders and operators can exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force. Among other things, the changes clarify which autonomous weapon systems will require an additional senior review prior to formal development and before fielding.  

An underwater vehicle navigated through a body of water.
Aerographer’s mates with the U.S. Navy Fleet Survey Team, utilize an IVER3-580 autonomous underwater vehicle to scan the ocean floor for hazards.
Photo By: Royal New Zealand Air Force Cpl. Dillon Anderson
VIRIN: 220714-O-N0842-1023N

The directive maintains the requirement that commanders and operators who authorize the use of, direct the use of, or operate autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems do so with appropriate care and in accordance with the law of war, applicable treaties, weapon system safety rules and applicable rules of engagement. 

DOD will continue to study advancements in related technology, including artificial intelligence. As these technologies mature, DOD officials recognize the importance of updating DOD policy. "While not all autonomous weapon systems will incorporate AI-enabled capabilities moving forward, AI is likely to play an increasing role in a range of systems and capabilities," the official said.

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