Disruptive Technologies to Upend Rules of War

By Jeremy Rabkin and John Yoo

Photo: Defense Dept.

The following is an adapted excerpt from Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules for War, Copyright © 2017, Encounter Books.

Economists call it “creative destruction.”

Robots are replacing factory workers. Online news sites are displacing newspapers. Passengers are abandoning taxis and summoning part-time drivers with cell phones. Household appliances and security systems are operating on home networks.

New technologies are having an impact beyond the workplace and household. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, for example, have ordered robots to kill individuals with precision-guided missiles from the sky. Unmanned aerial vehicles are leading the way for even greater technological innovations in war. The same high-speed computer systems can accelerate financial markets or disrupt national economies. Robotics and precision mapping can automate transportation, even passenger cars. They can also control pilotless aircraft that strike specific buildings or individuals. The same technologies that can assemble and deliver a book, a piece of furniture, or a sophisticated appliance to a customer within days are also enhancing military “productivity,” which means fewer soldiers can kill or incapacitate more of the enemy at lower cost.

Technologies often transcend their original purpose. The cell phone initially freed people to make voice calls without the physical tether of telephone wires. Engineers next added cameras and data communications to the handheld phone. Users could now record and send pictures of controversial police actions, repressive crowd-control measures, or riots. Phones can now distribute these pictures to millions of strangers before a journalist on the scene could write an eyewitness account.

Users can also receive, as well as transmit, a stream of text, data and information that is rearranging social relationships, consumer activity, travel and entertainment. A world that is wired allows a vastly wider and more consequential range of communication than telephone calls.

So it is with war. Instead of ending armed conflict, technological advances have expanded it. World War II came to an abrupt end shortly after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Many concluded that science had created a weapon so devastating, rational statecraft could never use war as a tool again.

“Military alliances, balances of power, Leagues of Nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. The utter destructiveness of war now blocks out this alternative,” said even Gen. Douglas MacArthur, no pacifist he, on the deck of the USS Missouri during the Japanese surrender. “We have had our last chance. If we will not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door.”

Surely the United Nations would ensure that nations never again looked to settle their differences by resorting to war. It was not to be. Responding to those who hoped that the end of monarchy spelled the end of tyranny, Edmund Burke warned: “Wickedness is a little more inventive.”

So it has proven in the decades after 1945. The major powers have not waged an all-out conflict, thanks, perhaps, to the very awfulness of the nuclear weapons that ended the last one. But, in the meantime, smaller armed conflicts and civil wars have together taken millions of lives.

During the Cold War, many of these conflicts were viewed as “proxy wars.” In the 1950s, the United States led an international action against North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, because the Soviet Union and then Communist China supported Pyongyang. Starting in the early 1960s, the United States began committing troops to defend South Vietnam from North Vietnamese infiltration on the same theory. In the 1980s, the United States supported Afghan guerillas resisting the Soviet-backed government. Proxy wars allowed the great powers to continue their competition, but at less risk of nuclear war.

Even as the Cold War thawed, conflicts continued to break out. In 1991, the United States and its allies mobilized 600,000 troops to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. By 2003, another American-led coalition toppled Saddam’s regime in Baghdad with a little over a third of that force. In 2001, an even smaller fraction of that force, working with local insurgents, removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.

In 2010, the United States, Britain and France helped overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi without any ground troops at all, simply by providing focused air support to Libyan rebel forces. This was the same strategy that NATO had used a decade earlier, when it ran an intense bombing campaign to stop Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Most of these interventions did not produce permanent peace. Air attacks cannot control territory. Yet nations may still want to deploy force, whether for self-defense, to defend allies, to prevent human rights catastrophes or to gain advantage. After almost two decades of inconclusive war in the Middle East, however, pessimists say that western states confront a choice between committing massive ground forces or standing on the sidelines. Smaller conventional forces have met with frustration in achieving the aims of strategy.

New technologies promise an alternative. Robotics, cyber and space weapons can reduce the size of ground forces needed to wage war. They can withdraw human soldiers from the battlefield while making attacks more precise and deadly. They can allow nations to coerce each other without inflicting the same level of casualties and destruction as in the past. They can reach far beyond borders to pick out terrorists or selectively destroy WMD sites. They can reduce the costs that discourage western nations from stopping humanitarian disasters or civil wars. While armed conflict will continue as a feature of the human condition, it might now come at lower cost, for a shorter time, and with less violence.

Some critics do not share this optimism. They fear that because these new technologies will reduce the costs of military intervention, force will become a more attractive option in international relations. Philip Alston, a United Nations special human rights expert, argues against drones because “they make it easier to kill without risk to a State’s forces.”
U.S. practice may further violate international law because it uses robotic weapons to attack terrorists off of any recognized battlefield, which Alston believes is tantamount to killing civilians in peacetime. Even if this analysis is correct, it is no reason to reject new technologies.

Nations that are able to deploy advanced technologies will not see the virtue in risking the lives of more of their troops as an alternative. Nations are unlikely to agree to treaties to limit these technologies until they are more certain of their impact on war and the balance of power.

Moreover, these new methods of warfare may serve wider humanitarian concerns that are more significant than the legality of killing off-battlefield terrorists. Because drone strikes and cyber attacks can strike with more precision, they reduce death and destruction among civilians and even among combatants.

If advanced technology can disrupt the financial or transportation networks of their rivals, they may achieve the goal of war — coercion of the enemy — with far less bloodshed than a focus only on military targets.

Meanwhile, new capacities may actually lead to less destructive wars by giving nations more options to resolve their disputes, or, better yet, more information that prevents conflicts from occurring in the first place.

Armed conflict often results from miscalculation. Sometimes, aggressors doubt the resolve of potential opponents to commit force against them. Saddam Hussein, for example, seems to have assumed his seizure of neighboring Kuwait would trigger no serious opposition.

States may also resort to force because they do not trust the resolve of potential allies to protect them. In part, Israel launched its preemptive war on its Arab neighbors in 1967 for this reason. Robotic and cyber weapons provide nations with signals to convey information about their resolve or their trustworthiness. Reducing uncertainty in war will help nations to negotiate their differences with less need for armed conflict. New weapons offer more opportunity to reach settlements with less death and destruction.

History shows that technological improvements produce advances in warfare just as they bring economic development. Law has proven ill-equipped to slow military progress until well after weapons are first used and better understood. We conclude by explaining that the security demands of the 21st century will create even more demand for the deployment of new military technologies, which can help respond to threats to international stability with reduced costs and harms. Those who would prohibit or limit new weapons may well encourage conflict that is far more brutal and destructive.

Unmanned Predator and Reaper drones rove the skies above the Middle East and Africa. They hover over a target for days and launch Hellfire missiles on a moment’s notice. Robots on the battlefield below breach doors in house-to-house searches and explode improvised explosive devices commonly used by terrorists and guerrillas. UAVs take off and land on aircraft carriers while others perform reconnaissance and strike missions.

Future advances will bring armed sentry robots, autonomous armored vehicles, and automatic missile and artillery fire. Soon, unmanned surface vessels may deploy on the high seas, close to shore, and others beneath the waves.

Combat is not just moving toward the robotic, it is also becoming ethereal. During its 2008 Georgia incursion, Russia became the first nation to deploy cyber attacks on enemy command, control and communications systems to augment a ground invasion.

To delay the Iranian nuclear program, the United States and Israel allegedly launched the Stuxnet virus to damage centrifuges engaged in uranium enrichment.

China has stolen large databases of U.S. government personnel information in addition to penetrating the networks of U.S. defense contractors, airlines and technology companies.
Russia has allegedly hacked into databases and email systems of the U.S. Departments of Defense and State, as well as those of the Democratic National Committee and the 2016 campaign of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

These examples illustrate the dramatic advances in weapons technology over the last two decades, which observers sometimes refer to as the “revolution in military affairs.”

The United States now fields thousands of UAVs for both reconnaissance and attack. Armed with stealth technology, these robots gather intelligence around the clock and launch immediate attacks in trouble spots around the world. In the future, the most advanced ground- and sea-based armed forces will employ remote-controlled units, such as sentries, light armor and littoral naval vessels.

Advances in missile technology and precision targeting will allow the United States to field a conventional global strike capability that can hit any target in the world within an hour. Some experts even predict that autonomous weapons systems will soon be able to act free of direct human control.

Some hope the revolution in military affairs will reduce the destruction of war. A nation will place fewer soldiers in harm’s way when remote-controlled combatants are available. Precision-guided weapons, directed by clearer real-time intelligence, will inflict less death and destruction on soldiers and military assets.

With drones available, for example, nations will no longer need to resort to World War II- or Vietnam-era bombing runs to destroy arms factories or oil installations. Precision strike technology may also shorten war by targeting an opponent’s leadership and strategic vulnerabilities, as the U.S. did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion. Future technology could also reduce harm to civilians — one of the central aims of the law of war — by tightly concentrating the use of force on its intended targets. 

Jeremy Rabkin is professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and was previously professor of government at Cornell University. 

John Yoo is Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Topics: Defense Department, Defense Innovation, Technology Tomorrow, Technical Information

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.