by Paul Lansu
Pax Christi International Board Member

War raises fundamental questions about what it is to be human and about the essence of human society. Does war bring out the bestial side of human nature or the best? Do changes in society bring new types of war or does war drive change in society?

Wars have repeatedly changed the course of human history, opening pathways into the future, and closing others. War in essence is organized violence, but different societies fight different sorts of war. Over the centuries, war has become more deadly, with greater impact. We know the two world wars of the 20th century: a world war and a total war.

War would not be possible without the willingness to kill and to die. War is a clash between organized societies. Since World War II, there is a clear trend away from violence. However, the reality today is the trend for fewer but more deadly wars. Much of the world, including Indochina, Afghanistan, the Great Lakes district in Africa and large parts of the Middle East, has seen and still sees conflict.

Modern war is total and industrial

In World War I (WWI), nearly 70 million men were mobilized into the armed forces of both sides. A new term ‘total war’ had to be coined for the two huge global wars of the 20th century. Modern war was industrial war. The speed of change was new. WWI was ground-breaking, as in much else, in having mostly combatants who could read and write. The ‘home front’ or civilians became in WWI part of the battlefield. The other gap that opens between the war and the home front is that civilians often hate the enemy more than they often hate those doing the fighting.

In WWI, all sides and all the religions involved, from Christianity to Islam, called on their gods to aid them. Some religions promise immortality or rewards in the afterlife for those who die in battle. The human heart is the starting point in all questions of war. In WWI, all sides claimed to be defending themselves against an immoral enemy.

The move towards total war in the 20th century blurred the line between the battlefront and the home front. The growth of nationalism and the mass participation of citizens in their own societies provided the fuel and justification for an all-encompassing hatred of the enemy, combatants and civilians alike, and the great advances in industry, science and technology gave greater means to act on that.

Autonomous weapons

Today states are scrambling to find ways to deal with developing threats like cyberwar. A new dimension of war opened, with dizzying speed, in cyberspace. A series of countries are producing (and using) killer robots or fully autonomous weapons. In theory, killer robots should still be responsive to human control, but whether they will always be is open to question. In addition, like other new weapons in the past, they raise issues about morality. What does it mean, as already happens, to have operators sitting in their offices on one side of the world directing robots to kill or destroy targets on the other?

The ability to kill at a distance makes killing more likely. Targeted killing is so different from traditional combat that there is a risk that governments will engage in it more often. Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban can be and are already killed by drone strikes. The interest of terrorist groups in drones is growing. What happens when drones are in the hands of “lone wolfs”? Houthi rebels in Yemen have used explosive-laden kamikaze drones.   

The Drone Age

We will soon be living in a world in which everyone can get their hands on a drone and use it for good or bad reasons. We will see non-state actors like rebel groups and terrorists use drones to attack governments and even civilian targets from the air. We will see authoritarian governments deploy drones to watch and even suppress their own population. We will also see drone technology become folded into the arsenals of humanitarian organizations and peacekeepers. Drones can be used for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Surveillance drones have proven useful in crisis mapping. NGOs might make use of drones to monitor human rights abuses and deliver relief.    

The rise of drone technology itself opened the door for a global expansion of targeted killing. Drones are aircraft of varying size that do not have a pilot on board and are instead controlled by someone on the ground. It is intended to be reused and they can be equipped to carry weapons of different sizes. The speed of a drone has increased over the last 20 years. By 2017, about 90 countries had developed unarmed drone technology.

The difficulty and even dilemma are the link between the military and civilian use of technology and so of drones. Drones, like all forms of technology, are not neutral but rather they reorder the calculation of risk and privilege certain types of actions at the expense of others.

Business as usual?

The main leading exporters of drones are the USA and Israel. They are followed by China, Russia, India, South Korea, and Japan. Turkey is following at a distance. Some of these countries mentioned have no problems in delivering drones to those governments that have a long history of human rights abuses. The export market in drones has increased since the attacks of 9/11/2001. The result will be that drones will be in the hands of most militaries worldwide. The world will soon be full of drones. Given the explosive growth in the government-led, commercial, and export markets, it is impossible to stop the spread of drone technology or to convince states to not use them. Whoever becomes the leader in drone technology will become the ruler of the world!

The political advantages are clear: because drones appear to offer a clean form of warfare that minimizes civilian casualties, they may make longer military campaigns more sustainable for a casualty-sensitive public. Drones may allow for precise, careful wars, but they may also make wars easier to fight and thus more frequent. Because drone technology is low risk for their own soldiers, governments may be more willing to use force rather than seek other, nonviolent means of addressing the problem. Leaders at the political level may become more aggressive or risk-taking when the lives of pilots are not at stake. This dynamic explains the expansion of the targeted killing list.

Third Revolution in Warfare

The growing fear of the misuse of drones leads to the call for a ban on “killer robots”. Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent population and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.

Formed in 2012, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is a coalition of NGOs (including Pax Christi International and several of its members) that is working to ban fully autonomous weapons and thereby retain meaningful human control over the use of force. Many countries, experts, and the secretariat of the United Nations support the Campaign.

Drones are not a panacea for all the world’s problems: in a world full of drones, war, poverty, and environmental degradation will continue. 

Morality usually lags behind

The rise of targeted killings by drones may represent a significant technological accomplishment but it is hard to conclude that it is also a moral victory. War machines and equipment are several centuries ahead of morality, and if morality ever catches up, there will be no need for them.

With new and terrifying weapons, the growing importance of artificial intelligence, automated killing machines and cyberwar, we face the prospect of the end of humanity itself. It is not the time to avert our eyes from something we may find abhorrent. We must, more than ever, criticize war. 

Several military ethicists and senior policymakers have argued that lethal autonomous weapons systems present a serious challenge to the current laws of war. The option might be to back the development of an international regulatory mechanism, along the lines of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which could establish rules for how drones may be sold and used.

Drones may have us see and know more about the world we live in, but it is far from obvious that they will make our choices clearer or our decisions easier. The drone age is not one in which technology will sit still.

One thought on “The evolution of warfare raises dilemmas that challenge us to retain our humanity

  1. Fear is the best stimulus of our reptilian brain and is great for profits. Why is the defense budget so bloated while every other need is ignored. War is great for making money.

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