Weapons Don’t Make War
Posted by The Editors
This post by Adam Elkus, an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security studies. He is currently associate editor at Red Team Journal and a contributor to the ThreatsWatch project. He blogs at Rethinking Security.
Observers of global security are growing very concerned about flying robots with guns, more commonly known as unmanned aerial systems or drones. As a remotely piloted, automated, and even autonomous weapons leave the realm of science fiction and enter into grimy reality, some worry that taking humans out of the tactical decision cycle and out of danger, will enable a new age of remote (and frequent) warfare.
While there are certainly problematic issues with the emerging military robotics revolution, weapons do not make war. It is likely that future historians will look back on today’s speculations about drones with the same bemusement military historians regard H.G. Wells’ writings about unstoppable strategic bombing today.
Human beings make war. Force—whether executed by a human or a robot—is a function of politics and policy. Drones do not change this reality. Unless one is describing Skynet, there is no taking the human being “out of the loop.” Human beings still remotely pilot today’s unmanned aerial systems, and even autonomous systems would still be the creation of human designers and programmers. Tactically or even operationally autonomous systems would still be subordinated to a military chain of command.
To be sure, evolution of unmanned aerial systems pose legal and moral problems, such as issues over accountability, compliance with the rules of engagement, and dealing with negative public perceptions. But the introduction of airpower (and other weapons throughout history) caused similar ethical dilemmas—many of which have yet to be resolved. Many critiques of drone targeting are really critiques of airpower writ large that could have been stated with contextual fidelity at many other points in modern military history.
As a certain dead Prussian informed us, war is political intercourse, with the addition of violence. Weapons are used because a given set of political and cultural mores and policy decisions set the stage for their employment. Drones did not fly themselves to Waziristan, but were animated by a domestic political and strategic consensus about the utility of killing enemies of the state with standoff firepower. And in that respect they differ little from the conditions under which we use existing technologies.
Perhaps the most persuasive critique of drones is that they desensitize us to the costs of war by allowing us to target without risk. But such analysis has seemingly forgotten the mid-90s debate over “post-heroic warfare” in the airpower-centric humanitarian interventions of the 1990s. The capability to wage war with minimal risk goes back to the post-WWI British policy of air control, the standoff bombing of those challenging imperial rule in the Crown’s backwater.
Despite the nearly century-long prevalence of airpower, we have not become numb to war. Witness, for example, the powerful desire for retribution after the 9/11 attacks and its impact on domestic and international policy. Airpower—drones included—has not erased emotion from war because war is a complex mixture of irrational forces (emotion, hatred, and enmity), chance (friction and the fog of war) and rational policy. And as long as humans are involved in conflict, these forces will continue to exert themselves on the theory and practice of war. This does not mean that we won’t regret our emotions after the end of hostilities, but placid push-button war is unlikely. Just ask the drone pilots who experience significant emotional turmoil from the consequences of their strikes.
There is also something erroneous in the idea that targeting at a distance itself is somehow alien to war’s true nature. As Lukas Milevski observed, popular ideas of “real” war in the West always seem to focus around the idea of two sides on a field contesting the day. But while battle avoidance may be alien to the History Channel ideal of war, it is not alien to war itself. With very few exceptions, every disruptive technology with military utility is initially decried as cowardly before being integrated into standard operating procedure.
Lastly, it should not be presumed that targeting long range always means targeting without risk of injury or death. The minimization of operational and strategic risk is a function of geopolitical primacy, the benefits of which include being able to project force decisively against enemies with either third-rate industrial armies or bands of militants. But if we are truly entering a more militarily multipolar world in which adversaries assimilate the same precision-strike capabilities we currently possess, the American monopoly on battle network systems—which include drones—will steadily erode.
Such unpleasant realities put the future of drones in a different light. Efforts to heighten drone autonomy will likely begin because current remotely piloted vehicles are vulnerable against opponents with sophisticated integrated air defense systems. And those opponents will likely have the ability to put Americans at risk through their own conventional, irregular, or nuclear capabilities. We have air superiority over Iran, for example, but their capabilities for irregular retaliation give us pause when we consider the utility of a strategic air campaign.
In a world of decreased American military advantage, we might look back nostalgically to our current nightmares about frictionless war regardless of what sophisticated robots we possess.