The last decade has seen significant developments in military technology and a global re-thinking of military approaches to future threats. The focus of modern initiatives is to counter threats at a distance without the need to deploy military force, a task that can be described as warfare by “remote control.” This style of combat includes a heavy reliance on armed and reconnaissance drones as well as a marked increase in the use of special operations forces (SOF) and private military and security companies (PMSCs). These developments are driven by technological advances and decreasing popularity among governments and the public of large-scale military deployments. As these technologies continue to gain traction, it becomes necessary to consider how they fare in terms of transparency, accountability, and their contribution to world peace.
The new methodologies have largely attracted a favourable public response among the countries using them to combat terrorism. They are presented by political leaders as the modern, high-tech alternative to “boots on the ground” which frequently results in heavy casualties. However, the full extent of casualties that can be attributed to remote warfare—either directly as a result of drone attacks or, over the longer-term, due to blowback from terrorist activities, extremism and radicalization—is not always factored into the equation, nor can it be quantified easily.
As these technologies continue to gain traction, it becomes necessary to consider how they fare in terms of transparency, accountability, and their contribution to world peace.
A persistent concern is that governments using drones know little about the identities and numbers of people killed by drone attacks, a troubling dynamic which has remained true since the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out its first targeted drone killing in Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. Following this strike, reports suggested that the CIA thought one of the three men killed might have been Osama bin Laden due partly to his height. Despite ultimately not knowing the figure’s true identity, the CIA felt it was an appropriate target. Reports have since suggested that the three people killed were innocent locals collecting scrap metal.
Fast-forward to today and, although state-led recording of drone strike casualties is undertaken to various extents in different contexts, it is still not possible to find public, systematic, comprehensive casualty records by any of the states involved in launching or hosting drone strikes.
Non-governmental organizations currently provide the predominant source of information about drone-strike casualties and, while their data and methodologies have sometimes been criticized, they supply vital information that would otherwise not exist. Academic, United Nations, and civil society analysis has drawn attention to the obligation on states to investigate possible civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes and has proposed that all casualties be recorded and reported upon.
Of course, the full story of modern warfare is not just about armed and reconnaissance drones or other high-tech weapons. Technological advances have increased information-gathering capacities and, as the appetites of governments and the public for large-scale military interventions continue to diminish, many nations, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, have begun to prioritize the use of small, low-profile, and highly-trained combat units over traditional military interventions. The start of the millennium has seen a sharp increase in the use of SOF, with the US more than doubling the size of its Special Operations Command since 2001. The inherent reliance of SOF on classified intelligence to carry out missions, coupled with their clandestine nature, presents a new and less accountable form of warfare.
The use of PMSCs has also grown. Private, U.S. corporations are integrated into some of the most sensitive areas of modern warfare including flying drones, managing surveillance technology, and running psychological operations. The outsourcing of military functions previously considered the domain of states—including combat and the use of direct force—represents a fundamental shift regarding state monopoly on the legitimate use of force and has implications for accountability. This rapid proliferation has not been matched by an adequate increase in oversight mechanisms to monitor the activities of PMSCs. Non-binding codes of conduct have been developed at the international level and signed by several hundred private security operators, but there remains a lack of binding regulation for PMSC activities as well as a lack of transparency surrounding the actions of PMSCs and their subcontractors.
The proliferation of remote warfare has reached a critical point where policymakers must evaluate its long-term impact and address lingering ethical questions around lack of transparency, accountability, and regulation.
Each of the remote control tactics gaining traction in modern warfare poses challenges of transparency and accountability, but do they at least contribute to peace and security? The reality on the ground in drone-bombed areas is frequently unrecognized: drones are strongly disliked and feared and can have profound psychological impact on citizens. In addition, there are indications that drone strikes lead to an increase in terrorist attacks, extremism, and radicalization. An example is Pakistan, where drones are deeply unpopular due to the civilian casualties, infringement of sovereignty, and societal impact on the daily lives of ordinary civilians they entail.
Drone strikes are becoming synonymous with U.S. military activity and growing anti-American sentiment has provided an effective recruitment tool for extremists, fueling rather than minimizing radicalization. Furthering the problem, relocation as a result of drone strikes has widened that recruitment pool, as militants have spread to regions with which they previously had no connection. The use of drones has spread the threat of violence to other parts of Pakistan and detrimentally affected society.
The proliferation of remote warfare has reached a critical point where policymakers must evaluate its long-term impact and address lingering ethical questions around lack of transparency, accountability, and regulation. Avoiding ‘boots on the ground’ may appear a less deadly and less expensive means of counter-terrorism for the countries employing remote warfare but the unforeseen consequences which could render this approach counter-productive need to be considered and addressed. There is also a need to examine in greater detail the underlying conditions that have allowed terrorist groups to develop into the threat they now represent and to address the issues in current methods of countering terrorism that may have repercussions for the future. Technology, however advanced it may be, does not have the power to resolve conflicts, many of which are deep-rooted and protracted.
(Feature Photo Credit: Office U.S. Navy Page via Flickr)