This is often referred to as “fire and forget,” a capability that has been continuously evolving for more than 70 years. U.S. weapon systems have been flying with autonomous functionality since the 1940s, with levels of self-governed capabilities, including target identification, target cueing, target prioritization, and terminal guidance increasing over time. To be clear, however, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has long classified these weapons systems as semi-autonomous or not autonomous, because they require human involvement in identifying and choosing their intended target or group of targets.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have paved the way for more accurate target detection, recognition, and discrimination, leading to improved and more autonomous weapons system targeting effectiveness. Completely autonomous capability removes the technological need for human-in-the-loop (HITL) and human-on-the-loop (HOTL) decision-making, which makes sense because human decision-making and communication cannot match the short time scales – measured in seconds – required for terminal homing. Weapons equipped with autonomous engagement capabilities become even more valuable when employed in collaborative weapons operations, enabling target sharing, target attack prioritization, and coordinated strike capabilities to overwhelm enemy defenses. While there are still ethical considerations about pushing human decision-making further out of “the loop,” the DoD and allies also must consider that against significant pushes into AI-directed autonomous weapons by near-peer potential rivals of the U.S., including China and Russia.

Why is Autonomous Engagement important?

When activated, munitions and guided-weapon systems progress through an orchestrated sequence of actions from launch to target engagement, including navigation, target acquisition, target identification and tracking, target prioritization, and terminal homing to target impact. This set of actions is often called the “detect to engage” sequence or the “kill chain.” With deployment in increasingly contested operational settings, including anti-access/aerial denial (A2AD) regions and degraded communication environments, weapons systems must be able to execute their missions with limited in-flight communication. Recent technological advances in sensors, processing hardware, and data processing, including automated target detection and AI have enabled weapons systems to be more capable, more autonomous, and more precise than ever before.

Who uses Autonomous Engagement?

Various levels of autonomous engagement capabilities are built into weapons systems deployed by every major country in the world, and many smaller countries, even if only for defensive purposes. Modern weapons systems are computer controlled, so especially considering today’s smaller and smaller digital systems, combat control systems using autonomous engagement can be on the ground, in the air, at sea, and basically anywhere a country needs them to be. The bigger question lies in what levels of sophistication a force’s autonomous engagement system is using. Out-of-date autonomous engagement systems can make a pilot, a captain, or even an entire fighting force vulnerable to threats if its sensors cannot detect, identify, and track targets accurately or quickly enough. Since they are also likely to fire less accurately, they may not only miss targets, but also may inflict unintended collateral damage such as on a civilian aircraft or urban streetscape. With that in mind, dramatic advances in the accuracy of recent autonomous systems make it inexplicable for countries to not update their autonomous engagement technologies.

What systems are Autonomous Engagement used on?

Weapons systems using Autonomous Engagement vary by country, platform, and reach, but include:

  • Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs)
  • Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS)
  • Networked Collaborative Weapons
  • Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPFs)
  • Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS)
  • Brilliant Anti-Armor Technology (BAT) submunitions
  • Wind-Corrected Munition Dispenser (WCMD)
  • Low-Cost Autonomous Attack System (LOCAAS)

Related Topics to Explore

Artificial Intelligence (AI) • Autonomous Control and Decision Systems • Autonomous Systems • Autonomous Technologies • Autonomous Weapons Systems • Autonomous Control and Decisions System • Autonomy Control and Estimation System • Cross-Domain Kill Chain • Intelligent Weapons • Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems • Missile Pivot • Weapons Seekers


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