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By Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Ohl, U.S. Naval War College Public Affairs
March 21, 2013

NEWPORT, R.I. – U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Thurnher, an alumnus of the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) and faculty member in the college’s international law department, received notification March 7 that he will be awarded the Richard R. Baxter Military Prize Certificate of Achievement from the American Society of International Law (ASIL) Lieber Society.

“It is a huge honor to receive this award from such a prominent group of international law scholars and practitioners. I am humbled and overjoyed,” said Thurnher. “I could not be happier that my work is being recognized this year by this tremendously influential group.”

Thurnher’s award is the result of an article he submitted to the American Society of International Law, titled, “No One at the Controls: The Legal Implications of Fully Autonomous Weapon Systems.”

Autonomous weapon systems and unmanned drones have had a sharp increase in attention in the media as of late, making Thurnher’s work very timely.

“Technology will likely make it possible for weapons in the not too distant future to be able to select and engage targets on their own,” said Thurnher. “The deployment of autonomous weapons will raise legal concerns, and human rights advocacy groups and other critics are already mobilizing against the development of such systems.”

Thurnher’s article is seen as being very forehanded and could give military leaders a chance to get ahead of future debates and potential legal issues.

“Military leaders and commanders should be aware of these issues and the emerging legal debate,” said Thurnher. “They should take steps now to ensure that these potentially revolutionary weapons will comply with all fundamental principles of the law of armed conflict.”

Thurnher began working on the article when he was a student here at the college, during the joint military operations portion of the course.

He said his inspiration came from real world events.

“I had seen the Watson supercomputer compete on Jeopardy and the Google self-driving car on television,” said Thurnher. “I wanted to learn more about how the military was planning to harness these capabilities and what that might mean for the body of laws known as the law of armed conflict.”

Thurnher’s original research paper was well received, earning the NWC’s Vice Adm. James H. Doyle Jr. Military Operations and International Law Prize for 2012 award.

Upon graduation in June 2012, Thurnher joined the NWC faculty team, where he was able to expand on his previous work as a student. An updated version of his original paper was featured in the October 2012 edition of Joint Force Quarterly before the final revised version was submitted to the ASIL for the award.

Professor Michael Schmitt, chairman of the international law department at the NWC, says Thurnher's work sets the stage for research and dialogue moving forward.

“I am delighted about the fact that his cutting edge research has served as a catalyst for follow on research at the Naval War College, other universities and various think tanks around the world," said Schmitt.

The results of Thurnher’s research were published in part by the ASIL. A major follow-on piece is scheduled for publication in the Harvard National Security Journal.

The award will be presented at the ASIL annual conference held in Washington, D.C., April 3-6, 2013.


Edited by Dan Marciniak and Ensign Alexander Cornell du Houx