Germany has initiated an independent process to consider the ethical and legal implications of using autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of a multinational Future Combat Air System (FCAS), to enter use by around 2040.

Berlin launched related activities at a state level in 2019 to assess the suitability of using future autonomous weapon systems, with the involvement of its defence and foreign affairs ministries. On 14 May, the effort was expanded with the support of participants including Airbus Defence & Space and the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics (FKIE), plus think tanks and universities.


Source: Dassault

Effort is intended to deliver a New Generation Fighter, supported by remote carrier vehicles

During a webcast event to launch the expanded initiative, Airbus Defence & Space FCAS chief engineer Thomas Grohs noted that initial activities on the French-German-Spanish programme have been focused on technical and design requirements, but that participants understand “there are also the ethical considerations”.

Grohs says addressing such aspects during a multinational project will require a modular approach when designing and implementing neural networks, since “this behavior may differ from the different users according to their ethical understanding”.

Describing the military’s consideration of employing such technology, German air force Brigadier General Gerald Funke, national programme leader for FCAS, comments: “Complexity is growing, and so are the chances and risks of using those technologies – not just in the military.”

Dr Wolfgang Koch, chief scientist at FKIE, says that from its outset, the European FCAS programme raises “an intellectual struggle surrounding the technical implementation of ethical and legal principles”, and carries with it a need for “compliance by design”.

This view is echoed by theologian Ellen Ueberschaer, who is calling for clear “red lines” to be defined around the use of AI in a military setting. “The deepest humiliation for a human being is to be killed by a machine,” she notes. “The core question is can we at all stages, and even in the fog of war, guarantee meaningful human control?”

Dr Frank Sauer, a senior researcher at the German military university in Munich, also cautions that “From a strategic perspective, fighting at machine speed is accompanied by a real risk of escalation at machine speed. So it is very prudent to keep humans involved as circuit breakers,” he argues. “Delegating kill decisions to a machine is unacceptable, and goes against fundamental human values,” Sauer adds.

The parties behind the newly established expert panel hope to continue providing information to the German public in a transparent manner, and expect the process to in time also be expanded to involve participation by other nations involved in the FCAS effort. “We are well in front, and can prompt discussion in France and Spain,” Funke believes.

France and Germany formally launched the FCAS programme at last year’s Paris air show, where Spain also signaled its intention to participate. Targeting a replacement capability for the nations’ current Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter combat aircraft, the effort is expected to deliver a New Generation Fighter, to be accompanied by so-called remote carrier vehicles and advanced air-launched weapons, all operating within a networked system.