The use of armed drones never takes place in a vacuum. Drones are used in concert with special forces, private military corporations, local armed groups, the transfer of arms, the sharing of intelligence, and other forms of security assistance. Much like the use of armed drones, these activities are ways for states to get involved in conflicts without putting many ‘boots on the ground’: so-called “remote warfare”. As with armed drones, these remote operations also suffer from a lack of transparency, accountability, strategic coherence, and have questionable military effectiveness.
In order to get a better overview of how these activities and issues interlink, on February 28th and March 1st, 2019, the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Warfare Programme organized a conference on ‘Conceptualising Remote Warfare: The Past, Present and Future’. Remote warfare being a large (and still somewhat undefined) umbrella incorporating many different activities, the two days were filled with a wide array of topics and speakers with different backgrounds, including several EFAD members.
Continuation of War by Different Means
Beginning with the history of remote warfare, Group Captain John Alexander, of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch, discussed how the use of armed drones is comparable to the UK’s ‘aerial policing’ of Iraq in the 1920’s, in which the bombardment of villages was used to subdue civilian uprisings without the usual costs in ‘blood and treasure’. Today, the use of drone strikes can be more precise, a point often reiterated by military officials who call the air operation in Iraq the “most precise in history” and use terms such as ‘surgical strike’. But conference participants agreed that precision does not automatically mean there are no civilian casualties. For example, data based on which targets are selected can be ‘misused and misinterpreted’ leading to the death of innocent people, not to mention the practice of targeting people solely based on their meta-data, which Jennifer Gibson (Reprieve) presented on. Other discussions focused on the fog of war, the chatter drone operators had amongst themselves, and different interpretations of what is happening on the ground, which could also result in deadly mistakes, killing innocent civilians. Participants seemed to agree that, without proper targeting procedures, standards, and oversight, the precision of a drone strike does not mean much for the protection of innocent lives. This point was also made clear by Dan Mahanty (CIVIC), who presented on the risk of civilian harm through security force assistance, and the presentation of Aditi Gupta (APPG on Drones) on the shortcomings of the UK’s parliamentary oversight related to remote warfare.
Politically Convenient, Strategically Incoherent
The similarities between use of drones and other ‘remote’ tactics such as special forces, proxy forces, and security assistance, is that they are all means for a state to influence the outcome of conflicts, short of traditional war, without submitting themselves to too much oversight or democratic control, and without having to bear large financial burdens. States have increasingly relied on such tactics, while their secrecy and lack of direct costs prevent domestic audiences (and parliaments) from getting involved. This lack of oversight has in turn allowed for legal ramifications to be readjusted or reinterpreted, and for states to get involved in wars without clear objectives or strategies to ultimately obtain peace. A comparison was made with the war in Vietnam, where the logic of getting involved was underdeveloped, there was agreement on the strategic objective, and finally, no meaningful victory was achieved. Today, as the lines between war and peace is increasingly blurred, warfare could be occurring ‘everywhere and forever’, as the expanding drone war that has yet to resolve any conflict permanently shows. Security assistance, the provision of arms or training of local forces can be equally problematic, as troops and arms may switch to an enemy faction, or ended up harming the provider’s strategic interests in other ways. In addition, research conducted by the Oxford Research Group themselves shows that as soon as partner forces break away from UK training and supervision their effectiveness decreases. The choice in partners is equally problematic: it appears that such partners are chosen based more on the immediate ability to counteract terrorist organisations rather than because of a more long-term security strategy. All in all, it was agreed that “arms length warfare can only achieve cheap success”. These remote interventions cannot stand on their own feet and risk creating dependence, intensifying the conflict, causing overspill or blowback.
One presentation ,by Baraa Shiban (Reprieve) and Camilla Molyneux (APPG on Drones), on the effects of drone strikes in Yemen showed how local engagement and investment could foster lasting security. The province of Marib was once theatre of an ongoing conflict, with the presence of Al-Qaeda and drone strikes. Ground-up stabilisation and trust-building efforts, improved infrastructure, and reliable payment of wages for government workers, have all contributed to turning Marib into Yemen’s most stable province.
The Future of Remote Warfare
As data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence start playing a larger role within the military, they might exacerbate the issues of remote warfare, highlighting the need for more parliamentary oversight and transparency on what policies are in place. As Jennifer Gibson put succinctly: Algorithms that help identify targets only work if you verify their output and adjust them accordingly, meaning that drone strikes based on data put through algorithms will require thorough post-strike investigations. Artificial intelligence, meanwhile, will take more and more functions, from analysing information to engaging targets, out of the hands of military personnel, increasing the detachment and ‘remoteness’ of warfare further. Some argued this could in fact unburden soldiers and enhance their capabilities to comply with international humanitarian law. However, everyone appeared to recognize the need for adequate policies, training, and oversight to combat the risks of using AI in military applications.
In response to war-weariness and shifting priorities, states have resorted to ‘light footprint’ remote warfare shrouded in secrecy and limited oversight. Armed drones have become totemic for remote warfare, but their ethical, strategic, and legal issues are part of the other ‘remote’ tactics too. States are planning to expand these activities, most notably in the Sahel as Delina Goxho (PAX) showed in her presentation. It is therefore more urgent than ever that the interlinkages of remote warfare with human rights violations, secrecy, and ineffectiveness, are uncovered and addressed as soon as possible through clear and adequate policies that promote transparency, accountability, and oversight.
Written by Foeke Postma, programme officer at PAX