What do you expect to be the most important trend in the future of technology, terrorism, and/or armed conflict in the rest of this century?

Here, we come to our final week of full discussions. After more than 2 years of work on the Technology, Terrorism, and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century research network, it is coming to an end in terms of regular material. It’s been immensely interesting to read, watch, think about, and discuss a variety of topics and issues that we’re all interested in. But, the time to move on has come. Beyond technology, terrorism, and armed conflict there are more concepts to discuss and ideas to dream up. So, that’s what Mike and I (Josh) are going to do. We’ve started a podcast as a vehicle for us to discuss wider things. You’re more than welcome to come along for the ride. We’ll publicise it soon. 

The TTAC21 website will remain in place for at least another year. A few members who have joined later on have already sent in comments for previous posts. I’ll update the original posts with them in the next few weeks. 

If you have something new to say on the issues covered by the network, you are more than welcome to write a blog to be published here. Or if you want to comment on any of the pieces we’ve previously looked at, either pop your ideas in the comments box at the bottom or e-mail them over. 

The network itself will now become a mailing list for sharing interesting pieces, calls for applications/papers, and that sort of thing. We’ve amassed a really great group of people in TTAC21, so it would seem a waste to not keep in touch. If you aren’t on the mailing list but would like to be, just send an email and we will add you to it. 

Before we look at our answers to the question, I thought I would explain the pictures in this post. The featured image at the top of the page is one of Jean-Marc Côté’s pieces from his ‘En L’An 2000’ (In the year 2000) body of work. This was a series of postcards drawn for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. They show visions of 100 years into the future. fittingly for us, several relate to military operations and I’ll put a few in this post. If you want to see them all, they’re available here.

France_in_XXI_Century._Military_cyclists

Now, for the final time, let’s see what we thought … 


France_in_XXI_Century._War_cars

TTAC21 has been going now for over 18 months, and in that time, its given us some fascinating discussion points. I for one have certainly benefitted from being a part of the network. To respond to this, the final ‘official’ question put the group, I’m not sure I can come up with a single answer. Since this research group came into being, we’ve already seen examples of drones causing disruption in a civilian setting, and this sort of thing will only become more prevalent over the coming years. How the rise of drones will affect the military setting however is another matter entirely. From my own perspective, I imagine the major western powers will continue investing over the odds in overly-expensive, overly-complex systems such as Reaper / Predator, while smaller players will start to make use of the disruptive power of drones to take on major powers at their own game. As Josh and I have said many times before, it can’t be long before people start strapping explosives to the sorts of drones that can be bought in shops. This will pose a massive problem for law enforcement agencies, and for military powers, as enemies and criminals will both have access to the sort of powers that for a short while were solely the preserve of the major players. Fighting drone crime and drone terrorism will certainly prove a major challenge in the years to come. 

But while drones are certainly one of the most important trends, I can’t help but think cybercrime will also continue to prove a problem – in particular in relation to electric / self-driving cars. If hackers can already break into certain cars via their stereo systems and advanced on board electronics, we can only imagine what might happen when self-driving cars become ubiquitous. Fair dodging and going ‘off grid’ will be the least of authorities’ problems as criminals may be able to kidnap individuals remotely, or even commit crimes of murder or mass murder without even having to enter the vehicle they intend to use as a weapon. And that’s just the tip of a very big cybercrime-related iceberg! 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


France_in_XXI_Century._War_plane

Perhaps I’ve been thinking about Paul Virilio a bit too much recently, but I think the biggest trend in the future of technology, terrorism, and armed conflict will be speed. Faster computing speeds allow for more computation and more complex computation to take place, leading to technological advances. Lots of people talk of artificial intelligence as being the future, yet AI is just computer programmes performing tasks that require human-level cognition. But as Alan Turing spoke about (in the 1930’s!) is that any universal computer can compute anything. So, what allows AI to be realised is the emergence of computing speed necessary to make these computer programmes work in an acceptable time. 

In terrorism, we see a battle between terrorist plotters trying to hide their activities and security services trying to investigate these activities. A terrorist can be as discrete as possible, but they will almost inevitably leave some clues. Thus, it becomes a race for security services to find these clues and stop a plot before the terrorists can put their plan into motion. Therefore, the faster a terrorist can move, the less chance they have of being caught. 

When it comes to warfare, the most significant trend we’ve seen in recent years is the revival of hybrid or non-linear warfare by Russia. Often, this involves changes in tactics or strategy to overwhelm the enemy in unexpected ways. For example, an adversary prepared for a typical military-on-military confrontation would be dealt severe blows if a force could melt into the civilian population only to pop up and carry out major attacks at irregular intervals. The sooner one force can adopt vastly different tactics to outwit their enemy, the more advantage they can gain. 

It’s also possible to conceptualise hybrid warfare as entailing temporary allegiances against common enemies. As such, the sooner allegiances can be made, then more force can be applied more quickly than otherwise. Plus, once those allegiances have run their course, the sooner one party can betray the other, the more advantage they can gain over them. Thus, speed is also a key concept in late modern warfare – and that is all before we even really look at the ever-increasing operational tempo of modern combat! 

In conclusion then, speed seems to be the basis of all major trends happening at the moment. I expect it to continue into the future. As it is the underlying trend, perhaps speed would be better conceptualised as a ‘meta-trend’? 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  


So, that’s what we thought, and that’s it. What do you think? 

UK MoD – Future Force Concept

This is our final look at the last Joint Concept Note published by the MoD. It is about the UK’s Future Force Concept and looks at how the UK military will function in the cyber, air, land, and maritime domains both independently and in conjunction with NATO and other partners.

Here’s what we thought:


Though I don’t believe this report tells us anything particularly new, it is an excellent reference work for anyone seeking to gain an understanding of ‘where the MoD is at’, and where it sees itself in relation to the world going forward. In particular, the report is broken down into the main military domains (air, sea, land, space), with additional comment on the new cyber landscape. Of course we should note here that over all of this report is hanging the ever diminishing budget for UK defence forces which have in a sense forced the hand of the MoD in some areas where we can no longer make the same level of investment that we once could.  

However, in some ways, this could be to our benefit… As the report notes, traditionally, maritime systems have been designed to last for anything up to 50 years. However, with the rapidly changing environment, such lifespans are no longer sustainable, as new technologies are fast rendering expensive investments obsolete. If the limited budgets forces us to look beyond the traditional ‘old’ way of doing things then we may be able to extract additional value from our investments, or at least be more selective in our investments, focussing on our strengths such as innovation, skills and training, and forming closer working relationships with our allies.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


This concept note seems to be a good analysis of how the UK military can do more with less people, less money, and less advantage over of adversaries. This note seems to be both pragmatic and optimistic. NATO seems to be the cornerstone of future British force deployments. As a Brit, it is a bit disappointing to think that the UK military is scaling down its ambitions as an independent force. But, as we know, the world becoming more complex requires lots of money, materiel, and personnel. Something that the UK government has decided not to fund. Considering that most of the threats in this note don’t require nuclear weapons, it does raise the question of whether they should be a top priority in the future. But, of course, the risk of not having them in a renewed era of state aggression could be too much for any government to take. 

I don’t know what any of the answers are. I’m not sure anyone really does. But, this concept note is a great step towards considering some answers. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


What do you think?

UK MoD – Future of Command and Control

This week we continue our look at the UK MoD’s Joint Concept Notes.

We’re looking at the Future of Command and Control this time. It’s a fascinating look into how leadership, battle management, and personnel management will function in the highly-complex futures we imagine.

Here’s what we thought:


This fascinating paper gives an insight into the MoD’s position on modern-day Command and Control and the challenges faced in the new operating environment. As with other of these papers we have looked at for TTAC, the emphasis here really is on flexibility and on greater understanding of the challenges. In particular the report emphasises the need to adjust Command and Control to a given mission and situation. While technology clearly provides many benefits to defence operations, the report also highlights the vulnerabilities that technologies bring about. Especially significant here in my view is the need to ‘maintain reversionary “off-line” modes and practices as a matter of course’ (46). 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


The first thing to strike me in this concept note is the clear belief that interstate relations are going to return to an age of persistent competition. From a hard-IR-Realist perspective we’ve never left this situation, of course. However to think that states will move from an era of cooperation to an era of confrontation presents a significant change to the status quo. AS anyone with a basic understanding of IR knows, this could be really dangerous. Although I suppose thinking about dangers and being a bit paranoid is one of the jobs our defence industry has, to think the worst and plan for it so we can all hope for the best. 

What seemed to come through in this note is that the MoD know that they need to make massive changes to how they command and control their forces particularly in complex battlespaces and confrontations below the level of armed conflict. However, it also felt as though the MoD don’t really want to do this. Also, I get the impression that rather than trying to innovate and be ahead of conflict trends, the MoD is reacting to how conflicts have changed. Of course, one must take into account how conflicts progress, and the enemy gets a say in how conflicts roll, but it does not seem as though the MoD are trying to dominate situations and set the tone for conflicts. 

I also get the impression that command and control has taken a lot of information from management studies. If one swapped some words around, I think this document could be equally applicable for commanders as MBA students. That is not necessarily a bad thing, leadership and management are key skills in both battle and business. But I can’t help thinking that the note didn’t seem to have victory in battle as its major focus. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


What do you think?

UK MoD – Human-Machine Teaming

This week we begin our triple-bill of Joint Concept Notes from the UK Ministry of Defence. You can see them all here. These are basically the documents which lay out how the UK military will develop in the future, and what it’s priorities and aims are over the next few years.

The first Note we are looking at is that focussed upon Human-Machine Teaming, available here. This considers how machines will work alongside people in order to get the best out of both to create the optimum operating environment for military success.

Here’s what we thought:


 

I found this to be a really insightful paper, outlining the MoD’s position on AI and robotics, and in particular, the role of the human in relation to the machine. While there are too many topics covered to address in a short blog response, I found it interesting that the report highlights the potential for technology to shift the balance of power, and to allow minor actors to increasingly punch above their weight. This then ties in with the report’s others comments about use, and the need to adapt quickly to changing demands. In the example of a 2005 chess competition, the paper demonstrates how a team of American amateurs with weak computers won, beating superior players and more powerful computers, demonstrating the importance of the interface between the human and the machine (39–40). While computer power is certainly important, such power used poorly or by unskilled operators is not a guaranteed success, and so we should not take success against ‘weaker’ powers for granted.  

I was also particularly taken by a segment in Annex A at the end of the report in which the authors address the question of autonomy. Here, the report suggests that for the foreseeable future, no machine possesses ethical or legal autonomy (57), within the scope of the report’s own definition. The report then re-states the MoD’s position from September 2017 that ‘we do not operate, and do not plan to develop, any lethal autonomous weapons systems’ (58), which is an interesting remark, given the MoD’s own definition of autonomy as describing ‘elements with agency and independent decision-making power’ (57).  

 Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 


This concept note is a great overview of the major issues related to the employment of AI-based technologies alongside humans in conflict situations. Something the note mentions which I hadn’t given much through to is the potential revaluation of state power not in terms of GDP, but in terms of human capital and expertise relating to robotics and AI. Whilst in my work I usually consider AI in weapon systems, that mostly relates to tactical rather than strategic advantage. Whereas considering the impact of AI in a strategic sense is something I haven’t really thought about. As the note says (para.1.9), Russia and Singapore are nations that whilst they have a modest GDP in comparison to other states, have a high level of expertise in the underlying sciences fuelling AI and robotics. This has the potential to really change the way the world works, changing the landscape of power that has dominated the world since WWII. 

Something else which caught my eye was the mention of how manufacturers can limit defence capabilities (para.1.14). By creating systems using certain techniques and methods, they become locked into hat system and might not be open to analysis or further exploitation by the military. In my research on AI in weapons, this can be problematic if the military, in particular when new systems are being tested, want to know what the underlying code does and how it works. Not knowing this can have serious impacts on military effectiveness and legal compliance. 

Whilst the note is focussed upon human-machine teams, something that stood out to me in paras 2.8-2.14 is the large number of tasks that the MoD intends to automate. To me, this seems to be reducing the human role significantly. Perhaps, then, the ultimate goal of human-machine teaming is not to have humans and machines working in symbiotic teams, but to have humans managing large machines teams instead. 

What is quite striking about this report is the similarity it has in vision to papers produced by the US military about network-centric warfare and systems-of-systems approaches to fighting wars in the 1990s. On one level it does seem like the same vision of technological superiority in warfare is just being regurgitated. However, on another, perhaps the visions is in vogue again simply because we are close to having the technologies needed to make it a reality. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


What do you think?

Science Fiction: Visioning the Future of Warfare 2030-2050

This week we are looking at several different short stories from the US Army Mad Scientist initiative (wonderful title!), and their approach to envisioning the future of warfare between 2030 and 2050. We’ve all picked different short stories from their compendium and review them. The stories are available from this website.

 


The Weapons of World War Four by Oren Hammerquist (pp. 89–99) 

In this short story, a group of ‘chrome caps’ (tech soldiers) enter a village and engage with a group of enemies, using futuristic tech to engage their foes. This tech includes Skipper and Gnat drones, as well as augmented reality (AR) helmets and form-fitting body armour designed to stop bullets. 

One of the strengths of this story is the way that it doesn’t describe tech as an all-conquering panacea, and attempts to demonstrate some of the weaknesses of the military tech compared to low-tech knives and rocks. There is also then the question of power, and what soldiers might do if caught with ‘low battery’ in the field.  

While there are certainly some interesting ideas presented in this piece, there are a few areas that remain unexplored. For example, there is the nature of the relationship between the tech troopers and the military leadership. Given the nature of their armour tech and augmented reality, it is surprising that the troopers aren’t subservient to any higher power or even military computer watching as the battle unfolds. Similarly, there is no mention of camera equipment, or the use of such cameras to monitor and track soldier behaviour. 

Though the author may not perhaps intend it, the piece also contains a few telling moments of US military doctrine worthy of further exploration. At first, there is the implied racism that requests for assistance from natives must by definition be a trap (90–91)*, and the arrogance (I assume intentional) of belittling Europeans in their approach to war (91). There is also then the very interesting, if unexplored, line where the soldiers are ordered: “If you see anyone with a slingshot, shoot to kill!” (98). This has unerring similarities with US doctrine in Vietnam, and even the modern-day approach to targeted killing and signature strikes. In the world of high-tech vs low-tech warfare, can all civilians be deemed legitimate targets? 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

NB: I am prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt and suggest this may be down to word count restrictions 


The science fiction short I have chosen to focus on from the Mad Scientist Sci-Fi Writing Competition is The Army’s Guardian Angels by Matthew Diehl (pp. 178-187). Diehl’s story is centered around a Lieutenant and his platoon who are sent on a rescue mission to save an NGO aid worker and a diplomat who are being held prisoner in an old mining facility by a local militia. The platoon is transported into the area (cue radar-absorbing wingsuits) to establish a clearer picture of the site and to determine the best way forward. Aided by an array of drones, the platoon begins the mission… 

When thinking about what we can learn from science fiction, particularly regarding the future of warfare, I think it can be tempting to focus our attention mainly on ideas within the narrative that are wildly divergent to how things are around us today. Whilst it may be true that it is often these divergent ideas that most vividly seize our imagination and excite fevered analyses, instances that maintain linear similarities to the present day can be equally fascinating and useful to consider. These moments hold a quiet significance that I think can become obscured by the very nature of their familiarity. An interesting example of one of these moments stood out when I read Diehl’s sci-fi piece. It got me thinking about the nexus that exists between divergent and familiar ideas and how exploring this might inform our thinking about the future. 

Halfway through Diehl’s story, the reader is introduced to a unified pair of combat robots that are (somewhat menacingly) named The Twins. The Twins are designed to fight as a pair and are drafted in to assist the rescue effort by clearing a network of tunnels filled with enemy fighters. The robots are described as each having ‘…one arm equipped with a machine pistol, with the other arm free to manipulate doors, climb obstacles, plant explosive charges or throw grenades’ (p. 184). The fictitious systems are also capable of autonomously picking and eliminating their own targets. Soldiers in the unit are depicted as notably cautious of the robotic duo, with one emphasising that he is “…perfectly happy to stay out of [the Twins’] way” after seeing the pair “rip through a bunker back home”. Although this incident is not elaborated upon, the notion that the robots went awry and destroyed something they shouldn’t is insinuated. Whilst the autonomous, highly mobile and weaponised robotic twins are certainly a divergence from today’s robotic systems in use on the battlefield, the sense of volatility over the robots’ capabilities and functions feels very familiar. This is analogous to the unease and concern widely felt today regarding the potential development of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) and the unpredictability that may come along with them. Accordingly, these worries may not jump out as particularly striking or notable within the storyline as they are a continuation of a line of thinking that we are very familiar with. However, by projecting today’s less-than-positive sentiments surrounding LAWS firmly into the future – specifically into a narrative in which LAWS are an accepted and active part of the fighting force – the significance of this linearity starts to emerge. It denotes a sense of normalisation of this unease/distrust towards a potentially unpredictable robotic system and comes across (through its casual delivery) as just an accepted and normal element of the human-machine dynamic within the unit. Was adapting to/accepting this unease the trade-off for the overall advantages that these robots deliver? Whether intentionally or not, Diehl’s depiction nods to the lingering anxiety (or inevitability?) that LAWS may end up being deployed (out of wartime necessity) before such systems are deemed dependable or fully trusted by the military establishment employing them. This concern is raised again when soldiers are warned not to “get ahead” of the Twins’ while they carry out their job – a measure seemingly to ensure that they and the rescued civilians in tow are not accidentally targeted by the robots. 

This highlights the potential that science fiction offers for learning valuable lessons pre-emptively. The conflicting issue of a useful combat robot versus a lack of human trust in that robot, for instance, may present significant challenges to a combat unit if such a circumstance ever came to pass. How would unit/team functionality be affected if soldiers were distrustful or concerned of their robotic teammates malfunctioning? How might this compromise the unit’s ability to successfully coordinate effect in a hostile, confined and chaotic situation? And what kind of innovative safeguards would need to be incorporated beyond software and IFF systems (Friend/Foe Identification) to maintain trust at a high enough level to ensure human-machine teaming of this sort could deliver on the battlefield with optimal efficiency? Perhaps first and foremost we should be asking – what contingency plan is in place (or, indeed not) for such an unpalatable eventuality? How would the immediate advantage of speed gained by a rival employing LAWS be assuaged effectively without resorting to a knee-jerk like-for-like deployment? These are difficult questions about a situation that many of us hope will not come to pass, but the importance of asking and answering such questions should not be swept aside by that hope. By peering into possible futures, science fiction allows us – whether directly through the narrative or through our own inferences and interpretations – to gain an insight into potential problems on the horizon. In so doing, fiction can offer us a unique window of opportunity: to take account of and move towards remedying possible lapses in our present day thinking/approach/planning that might otherwise lead us to problematic scenarios tomorrow. 

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 

 


The story I read was ‘Memories of Cordite, Sinew, and Steel in a Non-Binary Future’ By Lieutenant Colonel Yukio Kuniyuki (p.100-108). At its heart is a tale that despite advances of the future, in society, tech, and in adventure, some parts of war remain the same. Although this story includes ideas of individuals of non-binary genders, increasing  numbers of women in militaries, transhuman modifications, railguns, advanced fuels, space exploration, holo-casting, and missions on Mars, the point seems to be that the nature of war remains constant. Whatever happens in the future, and whatever alliances are created, war will always be about dominating the enemy and taking their treasures. 

It would do us good to remember these facts. Intellectual thought is not immune from fashion, and it is not uncommon to hear people who think a new idea is revolutionary and going to change the world – only for it to be much the same as before. Hybrid, drone, counterinsurgency, and counterterror have all be talked of in recent years as though they are new forms of warfare, or as though they alter the character of war. They don’t, they are just different forms of irregular warfare. Which is still all about dominating the enemy. Nothing much has changed about actual warfare, it would seem. People, mostly men, are still killed and maimed by it, and the families left behind are still hollowed out. 

Our interface with war has changed, however. Since the Gulf War we’ve been able to see updates on how wars progress daily, now of course we can go onto YouTube and Instagram and watch as much video as we can manage of drone strikes, soldier’s body cam footage, and the mangled bodies following an apache helicopter attack. I’m not sure if this is paradigmatically different from the Gulf War on TV, it may just be faster. Regardless, it does seem to have altered our thinking about war, reflecting the trends of combat in research and discussion. This could be a good thing to see the worth of fighting almost contemporaneously, or it could ignore the more meaningful long-term issues such as the increase from the Napoleonic wars of civilians constituting about 90% of casualties. 

Whilst science fiction can enable us to look into interesting and useful issues in contemporary trends, it struggles to delve into the long-term problems. Perhaps wider issues may be worth considering in our research, I know I certainly am. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University. 

In relation to autonomous weapon systems, how much human control is ‘meaningful’? 

This week we consider what level of human control over killer robots is meaningful. This has been a topic of great discussion at the UN as part of the deliberations about whether or not these systems should be banned. Indeed, Paul Scharre has just written an interesting blog on this very subject, see here. 

 

Here’s what we think: 

 

It’s great that this question should come up on TTAC21 as it’s something I’m particularly interested in at the moment. From my position, human control isn’t really very ‘meaningful’ and hasn’t been for a long time. If anything drone pilots don’t so much represent a lack of control so much as highlighting for us the lack of control, or lack of human agency, that’s been present in the military for a very long time. I mean even go so far back as the Second World War and already technology was starting to take over many of the duties of actually ‘waging war’. Skip on a few years and you get to the nuclear bomb, wherein one single individual ‘presses the button’, though in reality the decision to use the bomb was made many years before and by a great many people. At what point is the single decision to press the red button meaningful? I argue not at all, if the weapon exists alongside the common will to use it. If not pilot A pressing the button, then the military can simply send pilot B or pilot C. And while we’re at it, we better make sure it lands where we tell it to. Better get a machine to do the job… 

 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

 

This question really is an important one. Despite studying international law, perhaps it is more important than the legal questions over AWS. I think the approach which Paul Scharre suggests, that if we had a technologically perfect autonomous weapon system what role would we still want humans to play is a great one. I think it is the question which will lead the international community towards whatever answer they come to in relation to meaningful human control. 

For me, I’m coming to the conclusion that unless an instance of combat is of a high intensity and military personnel from your own side or civilians are going to die without immediate action and the speed of decision-making that only an AWS will have, then it would always be preferable to have a human overseeing lethal decisions, if not actually making them. Whilst the legal arguments can be made convincingly for both no automation and full automation of lethal decision-making, I cautiously argue that where technology has the required capabilities then lethal decision-making by an AWS could be lawful. Ethically however, I would prefer a higher standard which would include humans in the decision-making process. But, ethically desirable is more than ‘meaningful’ and this is why I think Scharre has gotten the jump on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots; reaching a ‘meaningful’ level of human involvement is a minimum threshold, but ethically desirable can go as high as anybody wants. Of course, this then makes it harder to discuss and so may tied up the CCW discussions for longer – although I hope it will be worth it. 

For me, ‘meaningful’ comes down to a human deciding that characteristics XYZ make an individual worthy of targeting. In an international armed conflict, that might be them wearing the uniform of an adversary. In a non-international armed conflict, it may be that they have acted in such a way to make them an adversary (I.e. directly participating in hostilities). But, that human decision can still be pre-determined and later executed by a machine. The temporal and physical distance does not alter the decision that XYZ characteristics mean that the potential target becomes a definitive target. Others will disagree with my conception of ‘meaningful’, and I hope it will generate discussion, but this is also why I favour Scharre’s method of moving forward. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Krieg and Rickli – Surrogate warfare: the art of war in the 21st century?

This week we are looking at the topic of Surrogate Warfare in an article by Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli. The article is available here. The piece covers ideas of surrogacy in warfare thorugh all sorts of interesting means, from mercenaries and militias to drones and satellites. We hope you enjoy the article. Let us know what you think in the comments.


In this article, the authors note the modern tendency towards ‘surrogate warfare’, in which States externalise the burden of war in order to distance themselves from the violence exercised by their surrogates (5). While the authors argue that surrogate warfare is ‘probably not the panacea for fighting wars in the twenty-first century’ (15), they do concede that surrogate warfare is going to become more common as risks and conflicts are not likely to recede any time soon (15).

I found this article interesting, though somewhat lacking in analysis, and I was left wondering how much of it is really ‘new’. Furthermore, I struggle to find the actual argument put forward by the authors who focus primarily on explaining what surrogate warfare is, and why it’s so prevalent. They don’t propose any solutions, nor even any remedies or genuine responses – or even make a sufficiently strong case as to why surrogate warfare might be a bad thing. Surrogate warfare may not be the panacea, but then the world is a very different place to it was in the time of Carl von Clausewitz.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I thought this article was a little misplaced, in that whilst it was really interesting it did not seem to fit well as an academic journal article. As it gives a very thorough overview of states using surrogates in their acts of war, it seemed that this would be a better fit for a textbook chapter. I struggled to find anything that felt truly ‘new’ in this article, it felt as though a history lesson on state use of mercenaries and militias was being put together with some thoughts on modern warfare technologies and PMC’s and given a gloss of conceptual paint under the term ‘surrogate warfare’. I’m sure this would be really interesting to scholars of security and war studies who want a new perspective spin linking current conceptions of PMC’s to historical views of mercenaries, but it didn’t really chime with me in any way. That said, if I were teaching on mercenaries and PMC’s, I would definitely recommend this to my students as a primer document full of great information.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


UPDATE: Added 22/04/2019

In this paper, the authors argue that the Westphalian era of nation state sovereignty is over, and the motif of 21st-century war is the practice by governments and other groups of ‘surrogate warfare’ as a means of distancing themselves from their employment of force around the world, whilst still allowing them to do so in order to achieve their geopolitical aims. The authors use ‘surrogate warfare’ as an umbrella term for ‘all forms of externalization of the burden of war to supplentary as well as substitutionary forces and platforms’, including (but not limited to) the Cold War staple of the ‘proxy war’.

Surrogate warfare is not new. ‘Since Ancient times, empires and states have entrusted auxiliaries, substitutes and proxies, at least partially, with the execution of military functions on their behalf.’ Arguably, the history stretches even further back – the God of the Old Testament, despite his omnipotence, utilised the Israelites to achieve his geopolitical aims of clearing the Promised Land. It may well be that the Westphalian period may have been but a historical blip, although the paper’s authors argue that there are some elements of our contemporary surrogate wars are unique. They are uniquely ‘globalized, privatized, securitized and mediatized’.

The author’s conclusions are well-argued. Though the line that ‘surrogate warfare is a return to… the cabinet wars of the medieval and early modern ages’ reminded me of a previous paper’s talk of using royal marriage to ensure peace and makes me wonder if some political scientists are looking a little too fixedly backwards, the four elements proposed as unique to 21st-century war are all certainly present, although how unique they are is less certain. For example, one could argue that the ability to control the success or failure of operations through the successful manipulation of the media was perfected with Hearst and the Spanish-American War of 1898, and what we see now is a difference of degree rather than kind. Most interesting is the ‘securitised’ aspect, as authors write that ‘threats have given way to risks as the drivers of security policies in the “global North”’.

The reality of surrogate war can be best shown with a recent example. President Trump made waves with the surprise announcement of the impending withdrawal of US troops from Syria. However, this amounts to only around 2,000 soldiers. Remaining in Syria will be the 60-75,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces, primarily the Kurdish forces who were instrumental in turning the tide against IS. Also presumably remaining will be some 5,500 US contractors, of whom almost 3,000 are US citizens. On the one hand, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of US troops and declared the war against IS over. On the other, he’s only moving some 2% of the US’ overall force, including its surrogates, out of theatre.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think.

Morgan – The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today

This week we are considering ‘The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today’ by Patrick M. Morgan (2012, Contemporary Security Policy, 33:1, 85-107). It considers how deterrence and deterrence theory has changed since the cold war, and how it could be revived in some ways to deter future conflicts.

Here’s what we thought:


In this long and detailed article published in 2012, the author asks ‘What does deterrence, in theory and practice, look like now?’ As there is just so much content in this article, I thought I’d highlight one particular passage that interests me. In it, the author suggests:

‘there is an alliance among democracies, whether explicit or not, involving a semi-automatic extended deterrence. Numerous adjustments in thinking about security are required to encompass the complications this entails.’ (94)

Naturally, there are several issues with ‘Collective Actor Deterrence’, and the author does explore them. But I wonder, what does everyone think about this notion? Does the concept hold water in 2018? Especially given there seems to be a political reluctance to sufficiently enforce sanctions and threats, leading to a credibility gap between what international State actors say, and what they do.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


The article reviews the state of deterrence (anno 2012), in both the academic and policy world, and discusses to what extent it has changed since the Cold War. The fact it was written in 2012 must be kept in mind, as the article is a little bit dated. The security environment has changed substantially to a more “traditional” and state-oriented environment since 2012. I would be curious to see an updated version of the article, and what these developments meant for the author’s conceptualisation of deterrence. I appreciate how the author views the subject of deterrence not merely through realist glasses, as most of the literature does. This allowed for a broad conceptualisation of deterrence and its influences. For instance, his inclusion of non-realist determinants of the ‘national interest’ was a welcome contribution to the literature on deterrence.

I would have appreciated it if the article was a bit more systematic though. Perhaps the article was too short (as it seems like it was an attempt to condense the author’s 2009 book on deterrence in an article), but I missed a sharp definition of what deterrence was; a systematic method to analyse historical changes; and structurally distinguishing between academic research, foreign policy; and the meta-level analysis beyond both policy and academic work on deterrence. Instead the article a non-structured narrative, that makes the analysis seem ad hoc, mentioning different characteristics of the contemporary security environment but staying at such a surface level that nothing really new or meaningful is said.

Because of the non-systematic analysis, the concept of deterrence gets stretched significantly. While I understand that the point of the author is to explain how the nature of deterrence has changed, I feel that if you want to call military intervention to halt human rights violations deterrence, you really need to justify your choices about what deterrence is, why you choose that definition, and why certain behaviour falls under deterrence. Otherwise you risk that the concept of deterrence becomes meaningless. Furthermore, if the point is to describe how

deterrence has developed over time and how the concept has now expanded, the article needs a more in-depth consideration of the historical nature of non-nuclear forms of deterrence, non-superpower deterrence and pre-Cold War deterrence policies. Are the contemporary forms of deterrence truly unique now, or have they always been here, and was the Anglo-Saxon IR literature perhaps preoccupied with nuclear weapons and superpowers with little eye for other forms of deterrence?

The literature on deterrence is so interesting to me, both due to the subject of deterrence, but also on a meta-level, as the academic literature has played such a pivotal role on foreign policy (e.g. Thomas Schelling), and the political views of the authors (from various camps) shine through in their analysis. The author did not really touch the academic and policy interplay significantly, nor debated where the changing attitudes about deterrence come from. This is a shame, especially as deterrence is all about perception, belief, and conventional narratives. It is about convincing an adversary that you are willing them to strike in such a way that it would be foolish for the adversary to attack. But it follows a certain logic, and if an adversary does not believe in that logic, it makes your policy less powerful. So what makes actors believe in that logic or not? What made this paradigm fall out of fashion? And what has changed that that logic is no longer as prevalent, neither in academia nor in policy (anno 2012)? I would have loved to see such meta-level reflections from the author in this paper. Now only how has deterrence changed, but a bit more critical reflection on why it has changed, besides changes in the security environment. However, it is possible that the author expands more on this in their book.

Maaike Verbruggen,Vrije Universiteit Brussel


What does deterrence look like today in both theory and practice? This is the fundamental question Morgan sets out to address throughout the course of this paper. The author draws some useful parallels between pre- and post-Cold War deterrence thinking whilst also highlighting key divergences. Morgan underlines contextual shifts that are shaping contemporary deterrence such as expanding normative constraints on the use of force, the shifting nature of threats and continuous technological change. But contrary to common assertions that such contextual shifts render deterrence inadequate for addressing contemporary security challenges, Morgan sees this as a flawed outlook and moves to highlight that deterrence, rather than becoming inadequate, has become more complex but remains relevant. An important point made here is that deterrence in international politics must be adjusted to accommodate major shifts in the regional and global international systems – but doing so is fraught with challenges. As Morgan puts it: “We are reshaping an important recourse for maintaining international order even as that order is itself being refashioned; we are altering our tools while we build on the run” (p. 86). For me, this echoes the type of dilemmas we are seeing across the board in relation to defence and security issues; where this element of not being able to keep up with the pace of change somewhat cripples our abilities to make meaningful progress in tackling certain challenges.

An interesting point Morgan touches on in this regard is the ability for opponents to design around traditional modes of deterrence (p. 86). The idea of designing around deterrence in order to eschew it seems particularly relevant to today’s security environment as we see

rapidly evolving threats, blurred thresholds of tolerance and hostile grey zone activity by increasingly assertive state actors. Whilst these issues do indeed make deterrence more complex, they also highlight again the vulnerabilities and potential inadequacies of current approaches to deterrence. The rapidity of technological innovation in unison with the types of challenges necessitates fresh thinking on deterrence to bridge vulnerability gaps and mitigate the ability for actors to ‘design around’ deterrence strategies. Deciding what, when and how to deter is constantly becoming more complex as new challenges – often underpinned by technological innovation – emerge. In this sense, it seems as though deterrence thinking/strategies themselves must also become more multifaceted, adaptive and innovative – even hybrid (not dissimilar traits to the threats it seeks to deter) in order to be credible in today’s security environment. I think this is an enormous challenge, not only in terms of understanding, recognising and deciding which of the multidimensional threats we face today would be responsive to deterrence, but also in terms of confronting the remaining inertia surrounding Cold War deterrence thinking in order to move firmly away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University


I liked Morgan’s paper, and thought it really interesting. I have been thinking about deterrence from an international law perspective for a little while. We usually think of the international law rules on the use of force as being a deterrent as no state really wants to be seen breaking them and be labelled an aggressor. But, we’ve seen a lot of breaches of those rules since 1945, without much damage to any state aggressors. So, perhaps public international law doesn’t have a strong deterrent facet.

However, as a large number of recent conflicts have involved non-state actors, and their wrongful acts are usually dealt with under international criminal law (ICL), I have been wondering whether ICL could have a deterrent effect not in the same terms we see domestic criminal law hopefully deterring criminality, but more in terms of deterring large-scale violence and insurgency. If ICL can deter this, it can essentially deter violent conflicts with non-state actors. Although the threat of prison can deter criminals, violent non-state actors are willing to die for their cause, and so the threat of prison may not impact them quite so much. Hopefully, I’ll get round to carrying out this research.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.


UPDATE: Added 8th April 2019, written earlier

This analysis of contemporary deterrence begins, as one might expect, with its history. The author argues that deterrence is ‘an old practice’—c.f. balance of power politics—but took on a new life in the first half of the 20th century, ‘stimulated by rising apprehension about the growing potential lethality and destructiveness of warfare’, as epitomised by the atom bomb. ‘[W]ith nuclear deterrence as the heart of the major nations’ national security strategies…the need to have it work became overwhelming. We bet our lives, our societies, our civilization (and those of everyone else) on it’, they write. Whilst granting that deterrence was ‘much less successful’ in preventing lesser conflicts, the fact that we’re still here suggests it worked on a macro level, although it’s obviously quite hard to test the hypothesis that nuclear annihiliation would have been avoided with or without deterrence. Since the Cold War, ‘[p]olitical relations among leading states have remained relatively moderate and significantly cooperative, remarkably free of profound security concerns’, a statement that possibly betrays the pre-Trump, pre-Belt and Road, pre-cyberwar vantage point of the article’s publication.

The author writes that whilst ‘[g]reat power conventional forces have…declined considerably’, the US is an exception. Stating that ‘whatever they may say, many governments count of the United States to provide’ international security management, he describes a situation of global dependence to which Trump, with his NATO criticisms and recent decision to withdraw from Syria, is a not-unreasonable response. As for deterrence, the author writes that in a world of ‘weak states, rogue states [and] non-states’, deterrence is now ‘more of a tactical resource…than a security strategy’, and one that ‘often being sought or practised against the West’. The focus on deterrence today is less on ‘retaliatory threats’ in favour of ‘enhanced defences’.

The paper suffers from a slight fixation on the deterrence of ‘kinetic’ weapons (e.g., nuclear), rather than cyber-deterrents. When arguing for the continued relevance of extended deterrence, the author writes that it can ‘also involve projecting deterrence to keep threats geographically far away’, which does not appear to be a particularly timely concern in a world of interconnected networks to attack and home-grown attackers radicalised through social media. The author even seems to be aware of this towards the end, declaring ‘[w]e didn’t see how to readily deter unconventional attacks before and we don’t now’. Six years have apparently produced little progress in that respect.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Sari – Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law

This week marks the start of a reduction in output for TTAC21. After about a year of work from all of us, it has become apparent that the 4 or 5 pieces each month that we were reviewing can take up a bit more time that would be ideal. So, we are switching down to 2 or 3. If you have previously been put off joining the network by the number of readings, but are now interested just send us an email. All are welcome.

Now, onto our reviews. We are again looking at hybrid warfare, or hybrid threat. Following on from the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and some other questionable deaths of Russia ex-pats, in the UK the hybrid threat issue has remerged after a flurry of interest during the Crimean crisis of 2014. Prior to this recent increase in interest, Aurel Sari wrote ‘Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law‘. It is a consideration of how international law can be used as a counter to hybrid warfare, and hybrid threats, and how it should go about being used.

Here’s what we thought. If you’ve got anything you would like to say about it, just pop it in the comments box below.


The 2018 paper, ‘Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law’, recognises an important need to re-engage with the politics of international law to prevail in, what Sari describes as, ‘the current strategic environment’.  Sari argues that such an environment exists as a result of the blurred lines between what is legally described as war and peace. These blurred lines are being used in the manipulation of legal concepts and thresholds in order to disguise violations of international law.  Although this article recognises a valid problem in international law, I have grave concerns with the proposed solution to this problem; ‘Western nations and institutions’ are called upon to save the international legal order against, what Sari repeatedly refers to as, the ‘adversaries and competitors’.

The reader is reminded of Russia’s 2014 ‘brazen violation of international law’ in its intervention in Crimea. There is also mention of the maritime activities of China that do not coincide with the West’s concept of international order. Other than Russia and China, it is not clear exactly who else comes under the classification of ‘adversaries and competitors’. Do all non-Western nations and institutions come within this classification? Surely not, as the inherent problems of such an ethnocentric view are obvious.

It is also not clear how Sari has come to the conclusion that it is only the ‘Western nations and institutions’ that can act as the saviours of the international order. Whilst reading this article, I felt an unease with the running theme of colonial-era thinking that only the West matters. The article makes the assumption that it is the West that are the only ones who are qualified ‘to promote their vision of international order’ (emphasis added). However, Western nations and institutions are not immune from exploiting international law or acquiescing in such exploitations. We only have to look at the US-led operation in Syria against Daesh and the invocation of the ‘unwilling or unable’ doctrine by various states to see how international laws can be strategically manipulated for a states’ advantage.

Positioning the West against the rest of the world under, what looks a lot like, an ‘us v. them’ paradigm, is not the solution to the ‘current strategic environment’. The international order is an order that governs all states. If we are to take measures to prevent the abuse of international law, then we need all states to be involved in this process – not just the states and institutions from the West.

Jasmin Nessa, University of Liverpool


In this article, Aurel Sari examines increasing ‘instrumentalisation’ of law to achieve political ends, citing examples such as the Russian ‘intervention’ in Crimea. In response to the instrumentalisation of law, the author calls for concrete measures in three distinct areas: legal preparedness, legal resilience and deterrence, and legal defence. While the author focusses primarily on legal approaches to political problems, he unfortunately lacks political insights into what is a difficult and complex challenge. The biggest weakness here is that the author fails to suggest any meaningful solution to the question of international relations between States that often lack the political and/or military desire to act on threats of action against those States that act unlawfully.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I really enjoyed this article, and think the problem of the blurred lines of hybrid threats and the politics of international law are extremely important subjects, and serious threats to present-day international institutions. I especially appreciated the solution-oriented thinking, although I wish the author expanded a bit more on how to achieve the proposed solutions, as those are not easy endeavours. I agree with what the author said, so I will not spend too much time criticising their opinion. Instead, I will focus on the big glaring omission of the article: Western blurred lines.

The article overwhelmingly discusses threats to international law by adversaries to the West, and how the West should respond to uphold international law. Kosovo and Iraq are mentioned somewhere in a sub-clause, but Western actions are otherwise barely considered. This is problematic, as Western countries have always also promoted a certain flavour of international law that is in their own interests, and have violated international law when it suited them. Consider many arms control treaties, devised in a way so the West does not lose its military advantageous position; the questionable status of nuclear sharing under the NPT; the lack of respect for international law when going to war in Iraq; or the fact that Israel is the lawfare pioneer par excellence. When will we see accountability for torture in Guantanamo or political follow-up on the Chilcott report? It reminded me of a recent interview where NYT journalist Jim Rutenberg claimed that Russian interference in US elections was bad, but US interference in other regimes is very different, as it is for the greater good. The cognitive dissonance is striking.

It is completely right to question the practices of Russia in Crimea, or Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. I whole-heartedly agree that they are serious threats to international institutions as a whole. But one should not be blind for the actions of the West, and pretend there is no politics behind which countries and practices they consider problematic and which they do not. Western countries violate or (ab)use international law too, which is also a threat. I promise you that many countries in the Global South certainly do not see the West as firm protectors of international law. Furthermore, the selective outrage against Russia, China or Syria, but not against the USA or Israel, weakens the credibility of Western accusations. This janus-face risks that valid accusations about horrendous acts of chemical warfare in Syria are perceived as just another political stick to hit Russia with. This perception is extremely dangerous, as it leads to disillusionment and makes it significantly harder to restore respect for international law, which is urgently needed.

Dr Aurel Sari mentions three countermeasures against the threats to international law: strengthening legal preparedness, legal resilience and deterrence, and the capability for legal defence. I would thus add a fourth: More self-reflection and accountability for one’s own actions, and lead by example.

Against this proposal I can already hear the criticism: You are so naive. You are hypocritical, only criticising the West ignoring Russia and China. The West is so much better, and Western self-critique harms our global position Against that I have the following to say: (1) I agree with the basic premises of the article, but the omission of Western actions really weakens the argument, so that is what I comment on. It inaccurately represents reality. (2) It is rather concerning that in the current political climate the debate has become so polarised and black-and-white that questioning the established narrative leads to accusations of Russia-apologia. Disapproval of Western actions are not the same as approval of Russian actions. Russia is an authoritarian regime that violates international law and human rights. This does not mean they are an evil mastermind plotting the breakdown of the Western order and international institutions as a whole. The debate on information warfare has become completely hysterical, and seriously lacks self-reflection and taking responsibility. It is easier to pretend that Russia rigged your various elections and referenda than to admit how xenophobic or racist your population is, or that there might be a reason why your population is so disillusioned with its government. (3) I honestly believe it will strengthen Western arguments against violations of international law if they were known to be more accountable and self-reflexive themselves. It would strengthen international norms, increase credibility and remove ammunition against them, so this advice would thus actually be beneficial to them. (4) My advice is also not limited to Western countries. I wish all countries were more self-reflexive and

accountable. That said (5), I am Western, writing for a Western audience, from a democratic country with freedom of the press. I can affect Western policy a lot easier than I can affect Syrian policy. I think it is a natural phenomenon to be the most critical of one’s own country or community. I know it the best, and care about it. Misdoings bother me especially because I think we can do better, and because I want my community to uphold my personal values.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussel  


This article aims to highlight the growing necessity for the West to re-engage with the politics of international law in the face of adversarial subversive activities that breach, challenge and threaten the integrity of legal systems. The author discusses the “instrumentalisation” of law: the use of law by adversaries and competitors as a tool to augment diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence activities. What I found most interesting in this piece was that in order to confront these challenges of instrumentalisation, the author goes on to outline steps that themselves somewhat resonate with this notion of instrumentalising law; albeit in a less subversive fashion. It is suggested that Western states must put in place “…processes and capabilities to deny adversaries the benefits of using law as an asymmetric lever of influence.” (p. 6). Whilst mitigating Western legal vulnerabilities is, of course, essential – looking at this a little differently, does not creating and placing such processes and capabilities of denial (if underpinned by legal frameworks) amount to using law as an asymmetric lever of influence too, just in a different way?

There seems to be an underlying paradox associated with responding to/challenging adversarial breaches that is quite interesting to explore. It comes back to the idea of ‘lawfare’ – using/misusing law as a means to achieve an operational objective, but for me it also hints at a subtle overlap between the use and misuse of legal systems through the act of manipulation. Whether that is the manipulation of legal thresholds by hostile actors or the manipulation of legal systems and frameworks to mitigate these new threats through creating processes/capabilities of denial. This article consequently raised interesting thoughts for me about law and legal systems as simply extensions of the battlefield. Sari sums this up well when suggesting that Western states should acknowledge that “…law is a domain of competition, just like the land, maritime, air, information and cyber domains…”(p. 5); highlighting that law can be weaponised, manipulated and harnessed as an instrument to serve strategic advantages just as other domains more traditionally associated with war can. The lingering thought this paper left me with is: in order to prevent the erosion of legal integrity, how do Western states go about utilising law in such a way as to not inadvertently mirror the “instrumentalisation” of the law that we seek to confront?

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University.


I thought this piece brought a few interesting points together. Of course, as it is a policy paper, it is not very long and suffers a lack of detail as a result. But, it still gets the points across. I like Sari’s ideas of strengthening legal preparedness, resilience and deterrence, and capability for legal defence. But, all of this does beg the question whether Western nations defending a Western-dominated international order is because they want to retain the powerbase of international law, or because they want to defend something that usually works for most nations from other nations that want to subvert the global legal order for their own ends? There are also issues of whether Russia, China and other powers are trying to change the international legal order for their own ends, or to make it a more diverse and multi-polar system that represents and works for all people equally well, in the face of a Western-dominated history? I’m not really sure if international law has the tools to deal with this question, most of the international lawyers I know consider the extent of different perspectives that are worthwhile pursuing to be positivism v. natural law. Yet, if we turn to international relations theory, it turns into a classic realist v. liberalist debate. I guess this is a situation whereby there are no clear answers. Yet, it does seem that from a Western perspective, Russia and China are playing to win when it comes to International law.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


UPDATED: added 1st April 2019, written earlier

The author of this piece makes a plea for a Western-led reinforcement of international legal norms as the most potent counter to revisionist states like Russia and their ‘instrumentalisation of law for political purposes’. Concerned that ‘[p]ersistent and serious breaches of international law undermine respect for the rule of law in international affairs’, they propose a three-step plan: strengthening local preparedness, including ‘identifying legal threats and taking stock of legal vulnerabilities at the national and institutional level’; strengthening their legal resilience and deterrence; and strengthening their capability for legal defence.

All of this seems like very reasonable advice, although Western institutions have gifted themselves a steep uphill climb here through their own historic ‘persistent and serious’ breaches of international law when it suited them, from the CIA’s Cold War government-toppling misadventures to the Pakistani drone war of today. However, one hopes that states, like people, can change, and if they were truly interested in reclaiming this mantle as defenders-of-the-norms, I would suggest that they start by making sure their own house is order. Perhaps they could dip their collective toes in the water and consider doing something about the ethnic cleansing of Kurds that NATO ally Turkey is currently chomping at the bit to finish in Northern Syria. Just a thought.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


Let us know what you think!

Shaw – Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age

Here’s our second article under discussion this month, Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age by Ian Shaw. This work follows on from his great book Predator Empire, which is not only a well argued piece on the technology-based containment of the globe by the US, but also includes magnificent accounts of the history of target killing amongst other things.

 

Here’s what we thought of his article:


This reading group has been going for almost nine months now, and in that time it’s fair to say we’ve read a fair bit on drone warfare and autonomous weapons. From all of our reading thus far, I’m not sure that this article actually says anything specifically new about the field, or indeed offers any sort of radical insight. As is typical for a piece grounded (forgive the pun) in the Geographical and Earth Sciences, the paper is awash with ‘topographies’ and ‘spaces’, and yet all of this when drone warfare has been around for quite some time. And of course, let us not forget that battlefields are constantly shifting spaces, and this is not the first shift in the ‘landscape’ of warfare, as the invention of the tank, the aeroplane and the submarine have already gone to show. In this sense then, I’m not really sure how much this paper is adding to our understanding of drones, or drone warfare – nor indeed empire and geopolitics.

The one thing I did find interesting however, in a non-TTAC21 specific context, was this notion of robots as ‘existential actors’ (455), and autonomy then as an ‘ontological condition’. Again, though I don’t think this is anything new per se, I find it interesting that now we are starting to see a shift in the language around drones, as other disciplines are slowly getting to grips with the impact of drones on our conception of space and the relationship between the human and the machine.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I thought this article was interesting, and I liked to reconceptualization of various aspects of targeted killing, modern war, and robotic conflict into abstract geopolitical ideas. However, The part I found most interesting was Shaw’s use of Deleuze’s notion of the dividual, where life is signified by digital information, rather than something truly human. As Shaw himself notes, in signature strikes by remote-controlled drones, the targets are dividuals who simply fit a criteria of a terrorist pattern of life, for example. With future autonomous weapons, killing by criteria is likely to be the same, but a lethal decision-making algorithm is likely to determine all targets based on criteria, whether something simple like an individuals membership of an enemy armed forces, or working out if patterns of life qualify an individual as a terrorist. In this sense, no only do the targets become dividuals, as they are reduced to data points picked up by sensors, but also those deploying autonomous weapons become dividuals as their targeting criteria and therefore their political and military desires become algorithmic data also. It seems that one of the effects of using robotics is not only the de-humanising of potential targets, but also the de-humanising of potential users.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


UPDATE: added 11th March 2019, written earlier.

I second Mike’s criticisms—the author uses a tremendous amount of verbiage to ultimately say very little. Buried beneath all the talk of human-machine teaming ‘actualiz[ing] a set of virtual potentials and polic[ing] the ontopolitical composition of worlds’ and ‘aleatory circulations of the warscape’ are three predictions about a potential future world order. First, the author suggests that swarms of autonomous military drones will make ‘mass once again…a decisive factor on the battlefield’. Secondly, they describe the co-option of the US’ global network of military bases into a planetary robotic military presence called ‘Roboworld’, which aims ‘to eradicate the tyranny of distance by contracting the surfaces of the planet under the watchful eyes of US robots’. Finally, the employment of AWS will fundamentally change the nature of the battle space as, ‘[r]ather than being directed to targets deemed a priori dangerous by humans, robots will be (co-)producers of state security and non-state terror’, issuing in an ‘age of deterritorialized, agile, and intelligent machines’.

Josh has already mentioned about the idea of people being targeted on dividual bases, but I found the above mention of ‘deterritorisalisation’, along with the phrase ‘temporary autonomous zone of slaughter’ particularly interesting, owing to the latter phrase’s anarchist pedigree. The author’s comments about the ‘ontological condition’ of robots notwithstanding, AWSes are unlikely to be considered citizens of their respective nations any time soon. As they fight one another at those nations’ behest, but without any personal stake in the outcomes, we see a form of conflict that is perhaps fundamentally not as new as it is often made out to be, but rather a modern re-incarnation of the mercenary armies of the past or, even, of some sort of gladiatorial combat.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University


What do you think?