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July 21, 2017

CNAS Press Note: Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Comments on Autonomous Weapons

By Paul Scharre

Autonomous weapons are again under public debate after Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva testified on the ethics of autonomous weapons. To provide further context, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Technology and National Security Program Director Paul Scharre has written a new Press Note, “Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Comments on Autonomous Weapons.”

The full press note is below:

Earlier this week, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Paul Selva weighed in on the ethics of autonomous weapons in testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. In response to a question about current Defense Department policy, General Selva remarked, “I don’t think it’s reasonable to put robots in charge of whether or not we take a human life.” Selva previously stated in a public talk last year that he viewed technologies which “absolve humans of the decision to inflict violence on the enemy” as “a fairly bright line that we’re not willing to cross.”

Robotic weapons may seem like science fiction, but simple autonomous weapons that could select and engage targets on their own are possible with current technology. Over thirty nations have defensive weapons, such as the ship-based Aegis and land-based Patriot missile defense systems, which have modes to automatically engage incoming threats under human supervision. The Israeli Harpy drone goes a step further: once launched, it can loiter over an area to search for enemy radars and attack them without further human permission. The Harpy has already been sold to Chile, China, India, South Korea, and Turkey – and China has reportedly reverse-engineered their own variant. Around the globe, nations are developing advanced military robotic systems that incorporate ever-greater amounts of autonomy, raising fundamental questions about the role of humans in war.

Scharre is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Paul Scharre

    Vice President and Director of Studies

    Paul Scharre is the Vice President and Director of Studies at CNAS. He is the award-winning author of Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. His firs...