Definitions. There is no agreed definition of lethal autonomous weapon systems that is used in international fora. However, Department of Defense Directive (DODD) 3000.09 (the directive), which establishes U.S. policy on autonomy in weapons systems, provides definitions for different categories of autonomous weapon systems for the purposes of the U.S. military. These definitions are principally grounded in the role of the human operator with regard to target selection and engagement decisions, rather than in the technological sophistication of the weapon system.
DODD 3000.09 defines LAWS as “weapon system[s] that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.” This concept of autonomy is also known as “human out of the loop” or “full autonomy.” The directive contrasts LAWS with human-supervised, or “human on the loop,” autonomous weapon systems, in which operators have the ability to monitor and halt a weapon’s target engagement. Another category is semi-autonomous, or “human in the loop,” weapon systems that “only engage individual targets or specific target groups that have been selected by a human operator.” Semi-autonomous weapons include so-called “fire and forget” weapons, such as certain types of guided missiles, that deliver effects to human-identified targets using autonomous functions.