Autonomous Weapons and Coercive Threats

Governments across the globe have been quick to adapt developments in artificial intelligence to military technologies. Prominent among the many changes recently introduced, autonomous weapon systems pose important new questions for our understanding of conflict generally, and coercive diplomacy in particular. These weapons dramatically decrease the cost of employing military force, in human terms on the battlefield, in financial and material terms, and in political terms for leaders who choose to pursue conflict. In this article, we analyze the implications of these new weapons for coercive diplomacy, exploring how they will influence the course of international crises. We argue that drones have different implications for relationships between relatively equal states than they do for unbalanced relationships where one state vastly overpowers the other. In asymmetric relationships, these weapons exaggerate existing power disparities. In these cases, the strong state is able to use autonomous weapons to credibly signal, avoiding traditional and more costly signals such as tripwires. At the same time, the introduction of autonomous weapons puts some important forms of signaling out reach. In symmetric conflicts where states maintain the ability to inflict heavy damages on each other, autonomous weapons will have a relatively small effect on crisis dynamics. Credible signaling will still require traditional forms of high-cost signals, including those that by design put military and civilian populations at risk.