• Valentina Koumoulou

The narratives around the concept of Remote Warfare


Photo credit: https://www.e-ir.info/2020/06/20/the-remote-warfare-paradox-democracies-risk-aversion-and-military-engagement/


The concept of remote warfare has triggered a debate among not only academics but also the public due to its significantly ambiguous nature. Although this type of warfare is not entirely new, the Bush administration as well as the succeeding Obama administration brought it further to light[1]. However, its origins can be found in the Cold War era where technological advancements were of great proportions[2]. The weapons of remote warfare have attracted both support and worry from the academic community, given that its relation to international law seems to be a matter of perspective. This constitutes the biggest issue when it comes to the introduction of a relatively new and innovative concept. What would be the winning narrative? The one that maintains that remote warfare is a “clean” type of war or the one arguing this type of warfare will make it easier to start a war without opposition in the future?


There exist many definitions of ‘remote warfare’ conceived by the academic community. One with seemingly the clearest view of the concept has been put forward by Knowles and Watson, whereby remote warfare is presented as “an approach used by states to counter threats at a distance. Rather than deploying large numbers of their own troops, countries use a variety of tactics to support local partners who do the bulk of frontline fighting. In this sense, the ‘remoteness’ comes from a country’s military being one step removed from the frontline fighting”[3].


Looking into further detail, it is important to understand what remote warfare means to each related party. Starting with a military commander, it symbolises precision and lethality which can prove game-changing against an enemy; whereas, for the enemy, it depicts a terrifying silent killer, necessitating constant caution to avoid detection and attack[4]. Furthermore, for the field of law, national security, and social science it symbolises everything from the inherent illegitimacy of expansive notions of war and authority to kill, to the critical tool for rattling international terror organizations, to simply a tool of war, no different than any other weapon[5]. More importantly, for political leaders, it embodies flexibility and risk prevention in the strategy of leveraging national power to destroy or disrupt national and international threats[6].


It is also important to note that there seem to be three reasons explaining the governments’ turn to remote warfare: a) the desire for leaders to avoid the risks associated with warfare, b) the rise of technological developments, and c) the networked character of modern warfare[7]. The former appears to be the most significant, given that a government needs public support to remain in power. The “body bag syndrome” which came as a result of the many wars the US was involved in, was detrimental to the political career of those who supported engagement in proxy wars all over the world. Therefore, the concept of remotely participating in the ongoing War on Terror with the help of technology, thus not directly endangering soldiers, seems to be more widely accepted by the public than ‘sending their own children to a war to the other side of the world.


It is undeniable that without never-ending technological achievements, new aspects of war, such as cyber warfare, would not be viable. The technology that gave birth to remote warfare weapons ensures an immense increase in accuracy both of information about the theatre of operations and the ability to discriminately strike targets, advances in sensor and computing technology, thus removing weapons from direct human control in time and space[8]. Extracting the human factor from weapon use on the ground constitutes one of the greatest achievements of technology as it is portrayed to the public.


Finally, the networked character of modern warfare constitutes one of the main advancements of the 21st century, bearing in mind that the concept of security has gained an international character. Now more than ever, apart from intertwined economies, states all over the globe have pledged their allegiance to different organisations in order to fight for security. Working towards building a safer reality appears to have a significant influence on the willingness of national leaders to exercise military force as a tool of national, as well as international security[9]. A great example of using security in order to promote remote warfare would be the introduction of the War on Terror when Americans launched UAVs for a variety of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, presenting it as a “new” way of waging warfare against international terrorist organisations, something that was often illustrated in the mainstream press or academic journals as a high point in the evolution of war.


Considering that it is politics that dominate the national as well as the international arena, it becomes clear that the burden falls on politicians to create a narrative of remote warfare. Looking into further detail, this type of warfare appears to be asymmetrical given the fact that it has been the result of extremely innovative and technological evolvement. Therefore, these weapons are not available to everyone, depriving states of the right to self-defence. The governments of states which have acquired remote warfare weapons appear to be in favour of using them when they suspect a threat from another state. By contrast, the ones who do not have the capability to carry these weapons argue that it leaves them unprotected in attacks where it might also be impossible to track the source. Throughout this article, the two opposing sides will be presented in depth in order for the reader to be able to comprehend all arguments and the significance of the issue. One cannot choose sides given that technological advancement will always bring these debates to light, however it is of great importance to have a well-rounded knowledge of such topics.


In Support of Remote Warfare


The most obvious advantage of remote warfare is the loss of the physical asset due to the fact that the operator of a drone or another weapon handled remotely remains physically immune from the effects of an attack on the ground. This constitutes one of the most significant arguments in support of this type of warfare, especially considering that the alternative solution would be to sacrifice many soldiers’ lives in wars far from home, something that would not seem favourable to the voters. Moreover, the tactical, as well as an operational asset of drones, is rather self-evident in view of the fact that they are highly precise and effective weapons ideally suited to strike the non-state enemy’s centre of gravity, namely its leadership[10].


In addition, with regards to strategy, drones facilitate the use of deadly combat power within the sovereign territory of another state, an act otherwise considered illegal according to international law[11]. The ‘no collateral damage’ narrative is also noteworthy, suggesting mainly that the weapons used in remote warfare ensure complete and utter cleanness with target precision. Most government officials assure the public of this particular factor when holding press conferences surrounding the issue of this type of warfare. Furthermore, the fact that the operators of these weapons are appointed mainly for surveillance duties, if and when the time to strike comes, they will have secured the information leading to the strike.


What is also important to note in support of remote warfare is the immense increase in accuracy, both with regards to information about the environment and the ability to discriminately strike targets, progress in sensor and computing technology, which resulted in the removal of weapons from direct human control[12]. Moreover, regarding human operators of drones or other remote warfare weapons, the narrative of virtuous pilots fighting from afar may help humanise and better understand the motives of those who pre-plan or carry out raids, while it may also deflect attention away from the dehumanisation of the enemy, making it easier to gain support from the public.


In Opposition to Remote Warfare


While remote warfare seems to have a great number of advantages and supporters, there has been a wave of fear as well as worry with regards to a new war-making era it could help initiate. The most prominent argument against remote warfare weapons has been expressed by Peter W. Singer, who speaks of the “dark irony” of the lure of riskless warfare, in a way that “appearing to lower the human costs of war [drones] may seduce us into more wars”[13]. This constitutes a significantly valid argument that should be borne in mind by not only officials, but also the public. Not sending soldiers on the ground does not eliminate the risk of casualties or collateral damage, it merely ensures that the only people getting attacked will be behind the enemy line. Therefore, it is highly important to consider whether this type of warfare is safer and for who. It certainly becomes a lot more asymmetrical given that not many states have the capability for such technological advancement.


For instance, drones indicate a shift in the nature of warfare with significant legal and policy implications, they collect data through 24-hour surveillance, link this data with various forms of coordinated intelligence as well as direct precision attacks from thousands of miles away[14]. This type of technology along with the number of specifically trained personnel needed for these operations are scarce in many countries. The same question nuclear weapons brought to light is once again relevant in the international dialogue. However, by using cyber-attacks, another important weapon of remote warfare, any state that has employed people with the appropriate knowledge could hack into an enemy’s base and turn their equipment towards their own gain without leaving traces. Therefore, this type of remote warfare creates a certain vulnerability of security systems that could lead states to be under attack without even being aware of it. What could be worse is the fact that this vulnerability could also allow a state’s citizens to be hacked and surveilled by an enemy force, either a state or a terrorist group, resulting in the violation of their basic human rights as well endangering their safety.


In conclusion, what is important to note is the distinction that should be made between narratives and reality. Both the supporting and opposing arguments of what seems to have now been a more mainstream way of conducting war have bits of truth that the public needs to take into consideration when processing information on the topic. It might be a safer way of warfare, but the main question remains: safer for whom? The asymmetry that characterises remote warfare simply enhances the repercussions of someone who is being attacked on the other end. While this technology has been developed to be used in the context of international law and solely for the purpose of security, the possibility of falling into the wrong hands has not ceased to exist. The dehumanisation of warfare is a matter of utter significance and should be carefully considered by government officials before entering more ‘everywhere’ wars.



References


Corn, Geoffrey. 2019. “Drone Warfare And The Erosion Of Traditional Limits On War Powers”. In Research Handbook On Remote Warfare. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.


De Klerk, Anne. 2021. “The Remote History Of Remote Warfare”. MA, University of Utrecht.


Hasian, Marouf Arif. 2016. “Drone Warfare And Lawfare In A Post-Heroic Age”. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.


Knowles, Emily, and Abigail Watson. 2018. “Remote Warfare: Lessons Learned From Contemporary Theatres”. Oxford Research Group.


Lifton, Robert Jay. 2013. “The Dimensions Of Contemporary War And Violence: How To Reclaim Humanity From A Continuing Revolution In The Technology Of Killing”. Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists 69 (4): 9-17. doi:10.1177/0096340213493257.


McKay, Alasdair, Abigail Watson, and Megan Karlshøj-Pedersen. 2021. Remote Warfare Interdisciplinary Perspectives. E-INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS.


Rothenberg, Daniel. 2014. “Drones And The Emergence Of Data-Driven Warfare”. In Drone Wars Transforming Conflict, Law, And Policy. Cambridge University Press.


Schaub Jr., Gary. 2019. “Controlling The Autonomous Warrior Institutional And Agent-Based Approaches To Future Air Power”. In Research Handbook On Remote Warfare. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

[1] Hasian, Marouf Arif. 2016. “Drone Warfare And Lawfare In A Post-Heroic Age”. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. [2] De Klerk, Anne. 2021. “The Remote History Of Remote Warfare”. MA, University of Utrecht. [3] Knowles, Emily, and Abigail Watson. 2018. “Remote Warfare: Lessons Learned From Contemporary Theatres”. Oxford Research Group. [4] Corn, Geoffrey. 2019. “Drone Warfare And The Erosion Of Traditional Limits On War Powers”. In Research Handbook On Remote Warfare. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] McKay, Alasdair, Abigail Watson, and Megan Karlshøj-Pedersen. 2021. Remote Warfare Interdisciplinary Perspectives. E-INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS. [8] Schaub Jr., Gary. 2019. “Controlling The Autonomous Warrior Institutional And Agent-Based Approaches To Future Air Power”. In Research Handbook On Remote Warfare. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. [9] Corn, Geoffrey. 2019. “Drone Warfare And The Erosion Of Traditional Limits On War Powers”. In Research Handbook On Remote Warfare. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Schaub Jr., Gary. 2019. “Controlling The Autonomous Warrior Institutional And Agent-Based Approaches To Future Air Power”. In Research Handbook On Remote Warfare. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited. [13] Lifton, Robert Jay. 2013. “The Dimensions Of Contemporary War And Violence: How To Reclaim Humanity From A Continuing Revolution In The Technology Of Killing”. Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists 69 (4): 9-17. doi:10.1177/0096340213493257. [14] Rothenberg, Daniel. 2014. “Drones And The Emergence Of Data-Driven Warfare”. In Drone Wars Transforming Conflict, Law, And Policy. Cambridge University Press.