New technology raises questions about the future of war

Imagine a war where the only soldiers on the ground are made of metal and plastic. They rove the terrain, scanning for enemy combatants with infrared sensors and shooting to kill when they make contact. The other side has a similar army of electronic brains, and the winner is decided by who has the most robots standing. It might sound a little absurd, but wars don’t need to be completely post-human to bring up ethical issues. In Pugwash’s last meeting, we discussed the implications of battlegrounds distanced from people.

The discussion began with a clarification of terms. Were we referring only to on-the-ground combat robots, the likes of which don’t quite exist yet? Or were we also including drones and other technologies that distance warm bodies from the battlefield? We agreed that discussion could be about any technology that works to put fewer people on the ground, and we ended up using “drone” as a catch-all term.

The first opinion on the topic was in favor of drone battles. This member noted that if both sides are fighting entirely with drones, then there’s almost no cost of human life. Wars then become economic battles, with the deciding factor being who can build more or better drones.

There were some problems raised, however, about a war fought entirely with robots. If the only things doing the fighting are drones, then it would make far more sense to target the other side’s drone-production facilities than to send waves of drones crashing into each other. What would prevent one side from sending a sneak attack and killing people, instead of matching drone against drone?

It was also noted that if war between two industrialized countries was solely comprised of drones fighting other drones, it would hardly be war at all. There would have to be rules to stop attacks on civilians or production facilities, but there would be no way to enforce them. Instead of war, it would be a ritualized game between two honorable opponents.

War will never turn into a game, though. If a country is going to war, do they really just want to blow up the other side’s toys? Whoever loses the most playthings wins? Not likely. The threat of war is in its human cost.

It was suggested, however, that even though no humans would die on the battlefield, there would still be human consequences. Forcing countries to focus their whole economy on producing more drones to win wars would cause suffering; think of rationing during past wars, or economic sanctions against Iran and the pain civilians face because of it.

Even if these sorts of wars did start, there would be much better ways to end them. Since World War II, no major country has fought a fully-mobilized, all-out war of attrition against another major country. If that were to happen, there’s really only one solution: nuclear weapons.

Because no one wants to use nuclear weapons, most recent wars have not seen the full mobilization of two industrialized countries against each other. Because two industrialized countries going all-out against each other is a requisite for the type of drone-vs-drone battles we had been imagining, those sorts of battles are highly unlikely.

What is more likely, Pugwash agreed, is something like what is already happening as a result of the United States’ drone policy. Non-humans will be brought in to aid local proxy wars, usually in situations where only one side has access to the technology. Drones will be used to “precision strike” targets or establish no-fly zones over small areas in pursuit of a goal other than total and complete annihilation. One Pugwash member even suggested that this could be accomplished with less human suffering than in traditional war.

But even though the new technology claims to lessen human suffering, that isn’t always the case. It does take boots off the ground, in the case of a technologically advanced nation using the drones, but there can still be terrible accidents. Even if the end goal is to produce a more stable region, such as the United States’ actions in Libya or Afghanistan, those end goals aren’t always realized when the military objectives are reached.

Some questions were brought up about the amount of civilian casualties related to drones compared to more traditional wars. When Hannibal invaded Rome, the war elephants stomped on anyone in the way, soldier or civilian. Using non-human war machines, whether elephants or drones, makes it harder to control who is going to die.

Another issue with fighting from afar is that it can be hard to tell what the civilian casualties are.

If a soldier lobs a grenade into a building, and then goes in to see the results, they’ll have a different reaction from a drone operator who pushes a button and then is told, “Great job, more terrorists killed” by their commander. Drones make it much easier to classify everyone as an enemy combatant, which makes it harder to get accurate civilian casualty counts.

The argument was also made that drone operators might be able to make more rational decisions. Because they’re not operating under a “kill or be killed” mentality, they will have a clearer mind and be able to fully understand their actions. This does have negative drawbacks though. One member was insistent that it wasn’t fair to kill people halfway across the world.

Although there wasn’t much consensus as to whether adding drones to battlefields made war better or worse, it was agreed that there will always be a need for humans on the ground. War isn’t just about killing everyone in a certain area. Especially in counter-insurgencies, war has to include winning over the hearts and minds of the local populations, through learning their customs and way of life, and not indiscriminately killing them with robots. Drones might help fight battles, but they won’t win wars.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on drone warfare.