The rapidly growing use of drones and robots, and data-driven military analysis will likely have profound impacts on future battlefields. At the same time, countries like the Netherlands are increasingly resorting to remote warfare. In an online symposium – hosted on February 26th by peace organization PAX – academics, military experts, civil society representatives and members of the Dutch parliament discussed the implications of these developments for the Dutch armed forces, military interventions, the protection of civilians, and long-term peace and security.
The symposium consisted of two panels, both moderated by journalist Bahram Sadeghi. In the first panel, experts discussed the opportunities and risks of novel military technologies currently in place as well as those expected to be seen on the battlefield within the next 5 years. The panelists included Dr. Lauren Gould, Director of the ‘’Intimacies of Remote Warfare’’ programme at Utrecht University; Bianca Torossian, Research Fellow at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies; LTC Martijn Hädicke, manager of the Innovation Program on Robot and Autonomous systems within the Dutch army; and Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader Humanitarian Disarmament at PAX.
LTC Martijn Hädicke explained how the need to maintain a competitive edge over other state and non-state actors had led to the creation of the Innovation Program on Robot and Autonomous systems. He additionally mentioned an increased safety for the military’s own personnel and an increased effectiveness of small units as other important reasons to invest in these novel technologies. He nevertheless added that in the majority of current deployments of the Dutch military, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the larger part of military presence still consists of ‘’boots on the ground’’, with only limited use of uncrewed systems.
Wim Zwijnenburg, while recognizing some of the advantages of using drones and robotics in warfare, stressed the need to further explore the impact of these technologies on civilians, and to have safeguards in place to prevent any unintended consequences. He described how cheap drone technology is currently spreading worldwide at a rapid pace and is strongly impacting the way wars are being fought, as illustrated by the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. He called for a multilateral debate to develop effective regulations and restrictions for drones and robotics in warfare, adding that the Netherlands should take a leadership role in this debate.
Dr. Lauren Gould similarly emphasized the need to study more profoundly the impact of novel technologies and remote warfare on the civilian population. Pointing to the destroyed cities of Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria), she critically challenged the ‘’legitimizing discourse’’ around remote warfare being ‘’precise’’ and ‘’caring for the civilian population’’. With fewer risks for the military’s own personnel and, in turn, fewer political costs attached to waging war, she foresees that in the next 5 years, western states will more easily resort to military force. She described this as a concerning development, especially in light of the ongoing lack of transparency on the local impact of remote wars.
Bianca Torossian did not view the level of transparency by the Dutch military forces as problematic, as she considered the Netherlands to be more transparent than many other countries about their military operations. She added that in some cases information should remain classified. She addressed some of the ethical concerns attached to the use of drones and robotic in warfare, including the risk of over relying on potentially biased data. She also mentioned difficulties in attributing accountability for unlawful attacks, especially where systems are becoming more and more autonomous. She finally highlighted the importance of constantly re-evaluating the opportunities and risks of novel military technologies and ensuring that existing regulations are keeping up with these developments.
In the second panel, moderator Bahram Sadeghi was joined by members of the Dutch Parliament Salima Belhaj (D66) and Tom van den Nieuwenhuijzen (Greenleft). Salima Belhaj recognized that novel technologies and more accurate target analysis as a supporting feature could lead to more protection for soldiers and civilians, but warned against diminished human involvement in all phases of decision-making processes. She highlighted the need for the Dutch military to be open and transparent to parliament and society about the risks of its military operations. She also added that a shortage of staff within the Dutch army, and the desire to grow in size should never be the main motivation to invest in more uncrewed systems.
Tom van den Nieuwenhuijzen emphasized that any advancements in military technologies should not lower the threshold for the use of force. He similarly warned against limiting human involvement in decision-making processes. He explained that the Greenleft is against the arming of the recently purchased Dutch Reaper drones as, even though there would still be a human being behind the decision to strike, the physical and psychological distance from the battlefield already implies a diminished human perspective.
Finally, both members of parliament agreed the Netherlands should take on a leadership role to encourage more ethical debate and international agreements about the responsible use and export of drones and robotics.
Missed the online symposium? You can watch a recording of the session on Youtube here :
The event also featured the short film ‘Kind of Blue’ by visual artist Anastasija Kiake, in which she explores the Dutch landscape of remote warfare, with a specific focus on the application of military drones. She created this film as part of her project ‘Neither Hidden nor Transparent’. For more information on this project and other work, please visit her website.