From unmanned to autonomous weapons: how the EU is adrift

EDA conferentie 2016 activiste in blokkade

open letter from 177 European scientists from 17 countries

Later this week the European Defence Agency hosts its annual conference: 'From unmanned to autonomous systems: trends, challenges and opportunities'. The event is the annual get-together of the EU establishment and the representatives of the defence industry. We, a group of 177 European scientists, are alarmed about the military turn the EU is taking. Both the massive amount of public funds that the EU is allocating for military research and the potential development of autonomous weapons should worry us all.

Defence policy in Europe remains a national jurisdiction. What wars to wage, what equipment to buy, they remain questions to be answered by every government independently. But as an economic union the EU has a listening ear for every industry, including the defence industry. This is how, in 2017, the European Union took the unprecedented step of setting up a military research programme worth 90 million euros. In 2019 the European Parliament will vote on the much larger European Defence Fund, a 13 billion euros military funding scheme.

The Fund is already controversial. The European Ombudsman has slammed the European Commission on several instances for its lack of transparency. There are also concerns about the murky involvement of the defence industry in its set-up of the Fund. Research shows that some policy proposals from the European Commission were almost literally copied from position papers of the defence industry. EU funding of military research will not be without consequence. It will likely fuel an arms race.

Tomorrow's wars

The military technologies developed today will be the ones bought tomorrow to fight the wars of the future. In the meantime, scientific research which might actually contribute to preventing violent conflict is being neglected. Furthermore, EU citizens’ tax money isn't financing just any kind of weapon technology. The focus of EDA's annual conference later this week suggests the EU wants to follow the trend, after drones, toward autonomous weapons. Fully autonomous weapons, also known as killer robots would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention. As such they will be unable to meet international humanitarian law standards, including the rules of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity, while they would threaten the fundamental right to life and principle of human dignity.

The line between unmanned and autonomous systems is often a thin one. Since the beginning of this year the European Union has started funding the military project Ocean 2020. This is a project that will integrate enhanced air, naval surface and underwater unmanned systems into fleet operations to build up a recognized maritime picture of developing situations for military commanders. Another controversial project which is rumored to be in the pipeline is an “armed ground drone” developed by Estonia, Latvia and Finland. As a semi-autonomous companion for soldiers on the ground, it can identify and track targets at ranges of up to 5km. In addition to the actual vehicle, the project would develop an autonomous control system, cyber defence capabilities and an integrated network of sensors.

Because of their controversial nature, civil society, researchers, the European Parliament and a group of states are advocating a ban of autonomous weapons. Governments should prohibit their use and development, as they did in the past with chemical weapons, anti-personnel mines and cluster munition. But the initiative in favor of a ban is being undermined by countries that are exploring the development of such weapons, including the European Union.

For the last four years, we have been commemorating the horrors of the first World War, the war that led to the call 'never again'. Are we, 100 years later, really going to fuel a new arms race?


Agustin Velloso, lecturer, Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia, Spain

Alessio Surian, Associate Professor, University of Padova, Italy

Alice von Bieberstein, post-doc, Institute for European Ethnology/CARMAH, Humboldt-University Berlin, Germany

Ana Márcia Enes Barbosa, Research Associate, University of Évora

Andrea Balduzzi, researcher (now retired), Distav (Dept. of Earth, Environment and Life Sciences), Università di Genova, Italy

Andreas Nuyts, PhD researcher, KU Leuven, Belgium

Andy Irwin, master in medical engineering, UK

Angela Cavazzini, Administrative Staff, University of Rome, Italy

Angelo Baracca, Professor of Physics (retired), University of Florence, Italy

Antoine Fermé, PhD student in Laboratoire de Mathématiques d'Orsay, Université Paris Sud, France

Antonio Mampaso, researcher, IAC Tenerife, Spain

Axelle Meyermans, PhD-Researcher in Social Sciences, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Bela Irina P. N. Castro, PhD Student at the Centre for Social Studies, Universty of Coimbra

Centre Nacional d'Anàlisi Genòmica (CNAG-CRG) Centre de Regulació Genòmica Parc Científic de Barcelona

Charlotte Bollaert, Vertalen, assistent bij de vakgroep Tolken en Communicatie, Ugent, Belgium

Chiara Cardelli, Science Communication project manager, Academy of Sciences, Austria

Chris Bieman

Claire Lacour, Professor of Mathematics, University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, France

Claire Lacour, Professor of Mathematics, University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, France

Danaja FABČIČ POVŠE, Researcher, KU Leuven Centre for IT & IP Law – imec, Belgium

Daniel Chateigner, Professor Normandie Université Caen, France

Daniel Roig Bardina, Textile Laboratory Researcher, CRTTT-EURECAT-Diputació de Barcelona

Daniela DeBono, Senior Lecturer Department of Global Political Studies, Malmö University, Sweden

David C Sterratt, Senior Research Associate Institute for Adaptive and Neural Computation, School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, UK

David Webb, Emeritus Professor, Leeds Beckett University

Diego Latella, Senior Researcher, Italian National Research Council, Pisa, Italy

Dieter Plehwe, Senior Fellow, Berlin Social Science Center for Civil Society Research, Germany

Dimitar Tasev, the Netherlands

Dinah Wouters, PhD candidate, Ghent University, Belgium

Dr Anitta Kynsilehto, Senior researcher, Tampere Peace Research Institute, Finland

Dr Giovanni Cercignani, University Researcher on Retirement from the University of Pisa, Italy

Dr Iain Atack, Assistant Professor, International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Dr Karen Evans, Dept Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology, Liverpool

Dr Keith Baker, School of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment, Glasgow Caledonian University

Dr Philip Webber, Chair, Scientists for Global Responsibility UK

Dr. Chloë Delcour, Ghent University, Department of Sociology

Dr. Edgar Göll, Head of Futures Research & Participation, Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment, Germany

Dr. Elisabeth Bücking, Dipl. Biol., retired

dr. Erella Grassiani, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Dr. Fèlix Saltor, retired Professor, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (BarcelonaTech), dept LLenguatges i Sistemes Informàtics (Comuter Science)

Dr. Frederico Gama-Carvalho, PhD (Physics), Senior Researcher (retired), CEO of OTC-Organization of Scientific Workers

Dr. Itamar Shachar, Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow, Department of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam

Dr. Jeff Powell, Senior Lecturer, Economics, Department of International Business & Economics, University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College London

Dr. José Ramón Olarieta, Professor, Departament de Medi Ambient i Ciències del Sòl, Universitat de Lleida, Italy

Dr. Kepa Fernández de Larrinoa, Current Research Fellow at Oxford University

Dr. Marcos Francisco Perez, Postdoctoral researcher, Centre for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona

Dr. Markus Gunkel, Hamburger Forum für Völkerverständigung und weltweite Abrüstung e. V., Germany

Dr. Matthias Korn, Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute for Information Systems, University of Siegen, Germany

Dr. Philip Inglesant, Research Assistant, Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford

Dr. Rachel Spronk, Associate professor, University of Amsterdam

dr. Susanne Jalka, Konfliktkultur, Austria

Dr. Victoria Canning, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol

Duarte Nuno Vasconcelos Gonçalves, Post Doctoral Researcher, University of Porto – Portugal

Dzifa Ametowobla, Research Associate, Department of Sociology, Technische Universität Berlin

Eivind Hovig, professor Dr. philos., University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital

Elena Camino, Centro Studi Sereno Regis, Torino, Italy

Elodie Verlinden, ULB, Belgium

em. prof. dr. Marc David, Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium

em. Prof. Herman De Ley, Ghent University, Belgium

Emeritus Professor Keith Barnham, Distinguished Research Fellow, Physics Department, Imperial College London

Enzo Ferrara, Dept. Nanosciences and Materials, Istituto Nazionale di ricerca Metrologica – INRIM, Italy

Ernest De Clerck, PhD Candidate. KU Leuven, Belgium

Eva Novotny, PhD, (retired) University of Cambridge

Ewoud Vandepitte, Assistant in sociology, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Federico Batini, Associate Professor, University of Perugia, Italy

Fiona Dove, Executive Director, Transnational Institute, Netherlands

Francesco Lenci, Retired CNR Research Director, Italy

Frédéric Le Roux, Professor of Mathematics Sorbonne University, Paris, France

Garbuglia Anna Rosa, Molecular Virologist, Rome Italy

Geertrui Van Overwalle, Centre for IT & IP Law (CiTiP), University of Leuven, Belgium

Geoffrey Janssens, Post-doctoral researcher of the FWO, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Giuseppe Burgio, Associate Professor of Intercultural Education, Kore University of Enna, Italy

Hala El Moussawi, PhD Researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Hans Hüttel, Associate Professor Department of Computer Science, Aalborg University, Denmark

Hans Vernaeve Ghent University Department of Mathematics, Belgium

Harry Bernas, Research Director (em) CNRS (National Scientific Research Center), France

Inge Eyskens University of Antwerp, Belgium

Ingrid Falnoga, Jožef Stefan Institute, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Iraklis Oikonomou, PhD International Politics, independent researcher

Isar Goyvaerts, Doctor in de Wetenschappen, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Jan Oberg, Dr.hc., peace researcher and director, Transnational Foundation for Peace & Future Research, TFF Lund, Sweden

Jan Potters, Doctoral Student, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Jan-Erik Gustafsson, Associate professor (retired), Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) Stockholm , Sweden

Jannis Eicker, research assistant, Kassel University, Germany

Jean-Michel Guillon, Researcher, Université Paris Sud

Jenny Nelson, Professor of Physics, Imperial College London

José Carlos Briton, Principal Researcher, PhD, CIBIO/InBIO, University of Porto, Portugal

Jose Fernando Pinharanda, Consulting Engineer to Gibb Portugal

Josep Puig i Boix, PhD engineer, retired professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona

Jürgen Altmann, PhD Physicist, Peace Researcher, Technische Universität Dortmund, Dortmund, Germany

Jutta Weber, Germany

Kim Naudts, Postdoctoral researcher, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Germany

Klaas Tindemans, docent/onderzoeker, Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussel (KCB), Belgium

Konstantin Kostov, Associate Professor SDU Electrical Engineering, The Mads Clausen Institute, Denmark

Kornee van der Haven, Professor Dutch Literature, Ghent University, Belgium

L. Bargigli, Italy

Lars Bodum, Associate Professor in Geospatial technologies Aalborg University, Denmark

Laura Deruytter, PhD researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Laura Horn, Associate Professor, Roskilde University, Denmark

Laurence Kenney, Professor of Rehabilitation Technologies, University of Salford

Leandro Van Langenhove, PhD Researcher, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Leili Khalatbari, PhD Student, CIBIO - Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos

Lieven De Cauter, Philosopher, art historian and writer, KUL, Belgium

Linde Nuyts, PhD candidate history, Ghent University, Belgium

Lorenza Nisticò, MD, PhD Centre for Behavioural Sciences and Mental Health, Italian Institute of Health, Italy

Lucas Wirl, Program Director, International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES)

Lucie Chamlian, Kiel, Germany

Lucy Suchman, Professor, Anthropology of Science and Technology, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University

M. Rosa Teira-Esmatges, associate professor, University of Lleida

Maarten Loopmans, KUL, Belgium

Maja van der Velden, Associate Professor, Department of Informatics, University of Oslo

Malte Lühmann, Germany

Mandy de Wilde, PhD, Postdoctoral researcher, Wageningen University & Research Centre

Marc Finaud, ‘Arms Proliferation’ Cluster Leader Emerging Security Challenges Progamme"

Marc Rosanes Siscart, Software engineer, Synchrotron ALBA-CELLS, Barcelona

Marco Cervino, Physicist, researcher, National Research Council, Italy

Margarida Carvalho e Silva, Professor, Portuguese Catholic University

Marisa Carvalho Naia, master student from Faculty of Science of University of Porto, Portugal

Matteo Campioli, Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Megan J. Povey, Professor of Food Physics, School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds

Melissa Van Landeghem, PhD student in Physics, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Mieke Massink, Researcher, Institute: Italian National Research Council (CNR-ISTI)

Miguel Alvarez Cobelas, Scientific Researcher, CSIC-Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Serrano, Madrid, Spain

Monica Zoppè, Researcher, CNR (National Research Council) of Italy.

Nazan Ustundag, Academic, Academy in Exile

Nele Vandersickel, vakgroep fysica en sterrenkunde, Ugent, Belgium

Nina Haerter, PhD researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Nuno F.F.G. Boavida, PhD Researcher, Observatório de Avaliação de Tecnologia"

Olga Dolgova, Postdoctoral Researcher, Population Genomics Team

Oliver Human, post-doctoral researcher, University of Amsterdam

Oliver Maye, research associate, IHP – Leibniz-Institut für innovative Mikroelektronik, Germany

Onur Şahin, PhD Candidate, Utrecht University

Paolo Tieri, Researcher, CNR National Research Council, Italy

Patrick Deboosere, Department of Sociology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Pedro U. Lima, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, specialized in Intelligent Robotics, Instituto Superior Técnico, U. Lisbon, Portugal

Penelope Papailias, Associate Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Thessaly, Greece

Pere Brunet, retired Full Professor of Computer Science at UPC

Pierre Lannoy, Institut de Sociologie, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Pieter Present, doctoral researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Prof dr. Amade Aouatef M’charek, Prof of the Anthropology of Science, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Amsterdam."

Prof. Dr. em. Aviel Verbruggen, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Prof. Dr. em. Madeline Lutjeharms, Faculty of Arts, Vrije Universteit Brussel, Belgium

Prof. dr. F. Brosens, Departement Fysica Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium

Prof. Dr. Hanne-M. Birckenbach, Germany

Prof. Dr. Regina Ammicht Quinn, Internationale Center of Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities, Universityof Tuebingen, Germany

prof. em. Jean Bricmont, Université de Louvain, Belgium

Prof. Guido Vanden Wyngaerd, Faculty of Arts, KU Leuven, Belgium

Prof. Helmut Kramer, International Relations, University of Vienna, Austria

prof. Hendrik Vos, Europese politiek, Universiteit Gent, Belgium

prof. Karel Vanhaesebrouck, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Professor David Howard, School of Computing, Science & Engineering, University of Salford

Professor Dean Wilson, School of Law, Politics and Sociology, University of Sussex, UK

Rainer Rehak, Researcher, Weizenbaum-Institute for the networked society, Germany

Richard C. Jennings, Affiliated Research Scholar in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, UK

Rita Gameiro Aleixo Pais, Project manager and PhD student at Centro de Estudos Sociais, Portugal

Robert John Millar, University lecturer and post-doc researcher in power systems, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland

Rui Namorado Rosa, Professor emeritus, Department of Physics, University of Évora, Portugal

Sarah J. Adams

Sean Matthew Cavany, Postdoctoral Scholar, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame

Silvia Woll, Scientific staff, Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT), Germany

Špela Špenko, FWO postdoc, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium

Sruti Bala, Associate Professor, Theatre Studies, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Stefano Severi, PhD Assistant Professor, University of Bologna, Italy

Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director Scientists for Global Responsibility"

Syksy Räsänen, University Researcher, University of Helsinki, Finland

Thomas Danckaert, Flemish Supercomputer Center, University of Antwerp, Belgium

Tiago Vinagre de Castro, Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra

Thierry Marchant, Professor, Ghent University, Belgium

Toby Walsh, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, TU Berlin and UNSW Sydney, Germany/Australia

Unto Vesa, Emeritus research fellow Tampere Peace Research Institute, Finland

Vincenzo Riso, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, University of Minho, Guimaraes, Portugal

Viviane BALADI, Directeur de Recherches CNRS, Paris

Wolf Göhring (retired)

Xavier Bohigas, PhD, Departament de Física, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya

Xavier MAY, researcher, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

This letter was published on Wednesday November 28th 2018 on