Shaping the laws of autonomous military systems

With government partners internationally and domestically, our researchers are working to ensure legal and ethical standards in the use of autonomous military systems.

Rain LiivojaOnly 50 years ago, the laws of war were set by a small group of lawyers in government and the military. Now, non-military experts have a seat in the war room, monitoring activity, predicting trends and actively shaping the legal framework around armed conflict.

UQ Law School Deputy Dean of Research, Associate Professor Rain Liivoja, is one such non-military expert, lending his legal knowledge to military and defence personnel in Australia and abroad.

“Today, every single discussion about arms control draws on the active participation of NGOs (non-government organisations) as well as think tanks, research groups and universities. The range of people involved in these conversations has broadened – which is a good thing,” he says.

“We need as a country, to invest in our defence technology. Australia has an enormous land mass and even more by way of maritime approaches to monitor, patrol and defend with an armed force that is relatively small, but also relatively technologically advanced.”

Dr Liivoja is a Senior Fellow with the Lieber Institute for Law and Land Warfare at the United States Military Academy at West Point and leads UQ’s Law and the Future of War research group, which focuses on the legality of autonomous military technology – such as driverless vehicles and uncrewed aircraft.

His research group collaborates with the Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperative Research Centre (TASDRC) and regularly engages with the Department of Defence and the Attorney-General’s Department, as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where he has been appointed as a Visiting Legal Fellow.

“The Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperative Research Centre focuses on trusted autonomous systems and supports industry-led development of ‘useful gadgets’ for Defence, from aircraft or vessels that can navigate autonomously to the pointy end of weapons systems that can operate without a real-time human trigger-puller.” 

“In order to ‘trust’ these autonomous systems, and to trust Defence with this technology, we help ensure compliance with certain legal and ethical standards, and that they operate within the legal framework Australia has signed up to and is likely to sign up to in the future.”

In addition to training, consulting and collaborating with Australian decision-makers, Dr Liivoja travels to the United Nations’ Geneva headquarters twice annually to workshop international legal frameworks for autonomous weapons.

He says the Ukraine-Russia conflict highlights a growing international concern with legal ramifications that could be felt globally.

“The technology that armed forces use is becoming cheaper and more accessible. Ukrainian forces have demonstrated they are adept at taking off-the-shelf civilian technology – say a drone you could buy at JB Hi-Fi – and modifying it for military ends.

“Much of the technology is becoming dual-use and can be used for civilian or military purposes.

This trend is problematic.

It is at odds with the previous notion that military tech is complex and expensive, and therefore easily monitored. Not so. This presents a new legal landscape to navigate.”

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