War. War never changes. From ancient Rome to the Second World War, it seems like it’s the same story being repeated. The tools of war might change, but war itself is always the same; soldiers kill each other on the battlefield until one side claims victory.
Except, maybe war does change. Conflict waged using autonomous drones, proxy groups and hackers in cyberspace looks very different to soldiers in uniform fighting on a battlefield. This matters, because if war is changing then the entire legal, political, and institutional framework we use at both the national and international level to manage (and hopefully prevent) war may also need to evolve.
We had a question sent in Waldisley, who thinks that drone technology is already cheaper and more effective than conventional weapons systems such as fighter jets. He sees a future where hundreds of thousands of networked drones operate autonomously, piloted by A.I. with “swarm capabilities”.
To get a reaction, we spoke to Paul Scharre, Director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. How did he think drone technology will change warfare? And what happens when non-state actors (such as terrorist groups) get access to similar technology?
I think we’re already seeing non-state groups harness drone technologies for crude flying IEDs, essentially. They’ve been used in Iraq and they’ve been used by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Drones put new capabilities in the hands of non-state groups and even individuals, and give them the ability to have greater destructive potential than they would otherwise have. They can leap over defences to attack military units and hardened facilities, and that expands guerrilla warfare into the third dimension in a way that hasn’t really previously been possible for insurgents and non-state groups.
I think we’re also seeing some interesting changes to international conflict dynamics when states get hold of drones. We just completed a survey at the Center for New American Security, where we looked at how people were willing to take risks with drones and respond to provocative actions with drones. We found that, even across multiple different countries, people were more willing to send drones into hostile areas and more willing to shoot down other countries’ drones. So, that poses some interesting questions about escalation.
Next up, we had a comment from Simon, who expects ‘hybrid warfare’ of the type used by Russia during the annexation of Crimea to become much more popular. First, we asked Paul Scharre to define the term. What does ‘hybrid warfare’ actually mean?
I think that in the commonsense way it’s used, it often refers to a couple of different kinds of things. One would be non-state groups that have access to more sophisticated weaponry, usually sponsored by states; Hezbollah would be an example of a ‘hybrid actor’. Another is conflicts that aren’t clearly a traditional nation-state war as we would think of them, but also not a traditional guerrilla or insurgent war; the conflict in Ukraine is a good example of that.
More broadly, one way to think of ‘hybrid warfare’ is warfare that blends both traditional destructive military force as a way to accomplish objectives alongside the sort of softer political and information tools of warfare; propaganda and the types of things insurgency and counter-insurgency are about, such as influencing populations. Hybrid wars are those that blend and use both. So, I think there are a couple of different lenses with which to view hybrid war, and I don’t think one is necessarily better than the others.
So, how will we know when we’re actually at war? Does the classical definition of war still hold true? Are the lines between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ being blurred by things like drones and hybrid warfare?
We tend to think about war in this very classical sense, like World War 2, where war is something that happens ‘over there’ on the battlefield, fought by soldiers who come home after the war ends. But in today’s information-rich environment, where smartphones are everywhere capturing information, and twitter bots are spreading misinformation, and emails are getting hacked, war is being fought within this broader information environment that’s all around us. So what happens on the battlefield is propaganda, and vise versa, propaganda is a weapon. I think that’s a condition that’s here to stay…
Going back to drones, for example, what can be interesting and alarming about drones is that because they can be used without putting people at risk and because they can persist for long periods of times, they can be used outside of traditional military force. That’s what is concerning to people about drones. They can be used in ways that are violent, but they don’t look like war as we think of war. And, in particular, when they’re used against terrorists they’re being used against actors who also don’t conduct war as we think of war. So, maybe our vision of war needs to change and evolve.
What will the future of warfare look like? Will drone technology change the nature of warfare? Is ‘hybrid warfare’ going to become more common? And will our definition of war have to evolve? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!