The Terrifying Consequences of High-Tech War
(A talk by Keith Locke to a seminar on “Just War?”, hosted by the NZ Christian Network, NZ Peace and Conflict Studies Centre Trust, Pax Christi and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship,in Auckland, 19 November 2016.)
The message of this talk is that war, as it becomes a more technological enterprise, is becoming even more barbaric with even less recognition that those being attacked are fellow human beings.
Perhaps we should start this discussion by going back a pre-industrial form of warfare, such as the tribal war between Maori before Europeans with their guns arrived on the scene.
On one level such tribal war was brutal, with one human destroying another human in hand-to-hand combat, and there were sometimes massacres. But the combat was on a fairly level playing field, although one side might get the advantage through having superior numbers, an element of surprise, or better fortifications. Both sides would commonly suffer significant casualties, which was one of the things pushing them to solve differences peacefully. Some tribes, such as the Moriori on Rekohu, became pacifist and rejected war altogether.
The biggest slaughter in Maori intertribal wars came when the technology went up a notch. Those who could get a large stock of muskets, like Nga Puhi, tended to prevail.
From that time on, through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries the technology of war has advanced hugely, particularly in the Western nations. The killers were able to kill from an ever greater distance, without ever having to set sight on their victims.
The guns or artillery got longer and longer in its range, and then aircraft arrived with an ability to murder people en mass with their bombs and missiles.
The extreme of this was reached on August 6 1945, when a US plane, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima killing 140,000 and condemning many others to early deaths through radiation effects.
On one side 140,000 civilians were killed; on the other, American side, zero people were killed. All twelve crew members of the Enola Gay returned safely.
Read most of the reports of the Hiroshima bombing and you won’t see the crew of the described as psychopathic monsters for killing 140,000 innocent people, nor will you find much criticism of the man who ordered the mass killing, President Truman.
To this day you won’t find an American president admitting the obvious truth, that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong, although to his credit President Obama did go to Hiroshima last year to participate in a remembrance ceremony.
There are great ethical problems with the inconsistent way in which Western nations have treated the wartime killing of civilians.
It is easier to say “our side is right” and “the killing is justified” when you can’t see the victims, and into the bargain they are being demonized, or belittled as less civilized. And many in the Third World are so belittled by those in rich Western nations.
Or to put the converse, it is easier to say the other side (say ISIS) is wrong and brutal if you can see their killing close up, in all its horror, as in the videos of ISIS people beheading their victims.
Without in any way justifying the brutality of ISIS, it may be, when we look at UN figures, that in the areas ISIS controls more civilians have been killed by US bombing than by ISIS soldiers. But such statistics don’t register in Western nations because the blood spattered bodies resulting from US bombing are hidden away in “enemy-controlled” territory, whereas we see the results of ISIS killings on our TV screens. The unseen Iraqi civilians that might have died from American bombing are merely statistics, quickly dismissed as “collateral damage”.
It has suited the purposes of the United States, in the wars against Saddam’s Iraq and Gaddafi’s Libya, to simply not keep a tally of civilian casualties. It has been left to others to quantify it.
That raises another critical question. Is the killing of civilians from a distance, from the air, somehow less repulsive than a killing by a knife or bayonet?
Is the person in the cockpit, or the person putting in the coordinates for a missile, more civilized than the person armed with a bayonet on the front line? Those in control of the planes or missiles usually cause more death and injury, but somehow they are not seen as having blood on their hands.
Remote war becomes a computer game, and almost as sanitised.
Let’s now look at how the advance of technology is worsening this problem.
Firstly, let’s consider nuclear weapons. There is a certain public resignation to the continuing existence of nuclear weapons, and a certain complacency that they are unlikely to be used.
It’s partially true that since the end of the Cold War there is less danger of a nuclear war breaking out between major nuclear powers. But there are still several ways in which a nuclear war could begin.
Firstly, the US has not ruled out using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear power, as we saw happen in 1945. Nor has Israel ruled out bombing a Middle Eastern nation, if it perceives its vital interests are threatened. And we can’t trust the North Korean dictatorship not to conduct a first nuclear strike.
Secondly, when relations India and Pakistan reach crisis point, as they have in the past, there is no guarantee that one side, perhaps the weaker side, Pakistan, won’t resort to nuclear weapons. Pakistan, also, is not the most stable or countries.
Thirdly, technological improvements have in some ways increased the danger of accidental nuclear war during a crisis between nuclear armed powers, such as Russia and America. The US has recently tested hypersonic ballistic missiles that travel at 5 times the speed of sound, which means, if my maths is correct, that they travel 100 kilometres in about one minute. If Russia detected one of these missiles coming at them there would be little time for them to rationally decide whether it was a real missile or a false alarm and whether or not to respond. A nuclear exchange could begin, perhaps destroying much of the world.
We always have to remember that the whole nature of so-called nuclear deterrence rests on willingness of the leaders of nuclear states to launch a retaliatory strike. Just recently, the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn got into terrible trouble with the Conservatives, the UK media pundits, and most of his fellow Labour MPs, when he said he would not push the nuclear button.
Also, the continuing development of missile defence systems by the United States increases rather than decreases the nuclear danger by making it more likely that in a crisis an adversary will strike earlier and with more missiles to get through the US missile defence shield.
Conversely, the US could be more tempted to conduct a first strike if it thought its missile defence shield made it safe from retaliation.
Meanwhile, the technology of killing from afar continues to advance in non-nuclear warfare.
Higher precision killing using GPS is the most notable advance in recent years. The result has been a hugely one-sided form of warfare, whether done by aerial drones, or land and sea-based missiles.
Usually the missile or drone operators are so far away that their lives are not at risk. Whereas, for the targets, their lives are always in danger. Under the mantle of a “global war on terror”, the US gives itself the right to conduct drone missile attack in any country, with or without the permission of the government of that country. For example, drone strikes have occurred in Pakistan and Libya despite protests from the Pakistani and Libyan authorities.
This is all going against the restraints on war contained in the Geneva Conventions which envisage combat between armed combatants on a battlefield. To the US all the world is now a battlefield, and it reserves the right to kill any adversary, even when that adversary is not a soldier but rather an ideologue or a political leader.
When all the world is considered a battlefield, the dangers of killing civilians other than those being targeted is also substantial, as we have seen.
Many, many civilians have been killed as collateral damage in American drone missile strikes, in a way that contravenes much of the international humanitarian law designed to protect non-combatants.
This problem of civilian deaths is enhanced when the strikes are against targets about which the Americans have limited intelligence – mainly because they have no intelligence from the ground itself. American intelligence is pretty much all based on observation from the air, combined with information from intercepted telephone conversations.
Even worse are those drone strikes call “signature strikes” where the identity of the target is not known, but they appear to be acting like an adversary, or a “militant” in the West language of demonization.
It is death by alogaritm. If you present with certain characteristics you are killed.
A UN special rapporteur has rightly called the use of fatal drone strikes away from a war zone as illegal extra-judicial killing.
Just because the US government has endorsed such killing doesn’t make it legal. How can it be legal for a US president to be given the power to construct a secret kill list and order the killing of anyone, anywhere in the world, with not even the pretence of legal constraints? Now that power to kill anyone by drone, anywhere in the world, at any time, is to be entrusted to Donald J. Trump.
Let us look at another aspect of high-tech aerial war. It is usually very one-sided. Take the current war against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. One side controls the air and conducts detailed aerial surveillance around the clock as well as monitoring all electronic communications. US planes can strike with precision missiles at short notice. It can prevent the ISIS fighting in the open, and stop it making effective use of heavy weaponry or tanks.
This huge technological imbalance between the two sides – or what could be called the asymmetric nature of the war – has driven ISIS to desperate measures, such as suicide soldiers driving truck bombs into the lines of the forces attacking them.
This technological imbalance and the desperation it causes also gives impetus to terroristic suicide actions against civilians – as we have seen in Bagdad and Paris.
Without justifying such terrorist actions in any way, we have to understand the mindset which produces them.
To some extent they are motivated by a perceived sense of injustice against the people these jihadists claim to represent. The Palestinian suicide bombers of earlier times thought they were justified in blowing up Israeli civilians because perceived the Israeli people as a whole to be against Palestinians. Occasionally, these days, Islamic Jihad in Gaza will send a rocket into Israel with the same rationale, or as retaliation for an Israeli drone strike on one of their people. Sending rockets into civilian areas is clearly a desperate terror act, which we cannot excuse. But that desperation among Islamic Jihad’s civilian supporters is only enhanced when they see a constant presence of Israeli drones in the sky overhead, never knowing when a missile might suddenly come their way.
In general terms, the advance of military technology helps the already rich and powerful states – who can afford such technology – to pursue their own agendas, and it weakens the ability of people in the poorer nations to resist.
Wars “won” by the massive use of Western air power and highly targeted bombing end up not only destroying so much of a country, but are also hugely destabilising. We’ve seen that in Iraq and Libya, and the same process is underway consequent to the massive bombing of Syria (by Russia and other nations) and in the Yemen (as a result of the Saudi bombing).
Bombing can weaken or destroy a regime, as we saw in the fall of Gaddafi’s Libya or Saddam’s Iraq, but the foreign victor’s interference in the moulding of a new body politic tends to exacerbate tensions between internal factions, widen sectarian differences, and generate new conflicts, often of a military nature.
ISIS may be militarily defeated but the political fault lines in Iraq – between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions – may be widened in the process.
Let’s go on to another aspect of our main topic, that is how big advances in weapons technology are affecting naval and ground warfare.
Coming on stream are science fiction weapons like railguns, where explosive projectiles are rapidly accelerated via electro-magnetic rails. According to the US Deputy Defence Secretary Robert Work railguns will be inexpensive and be of enormous use against airplanes, missiles, tanks – almost anything.
Another powerful new weapon, to be introduced by the US Navy, is a “directed energy” laser weapon which can hit anything in a line of sight.
And then there is the replacing of soldier roles with robots, often called “killer robots”, which can be fully automated aerial drones used close to the ground or they can be land vehicles like tanks.
It took me a while to get my head around this, but then I thought that anything is possible when we now have self-driving cars, that can somehow respond to multiple factors in the changing environment around them.
The United States is testing small one metre tall tanks, called a MAARS (a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System). The remote controller can sit kilometres away and use the MAARS tank to conduct camera surveillance of a battlefield and to fire shells and grenades.
Russia has a full-size Armata T-14 tank with an unmanned remote-controlled firing turret. The tank still has 3 crew members to drive it, but this is being reduced to zero soon. Imagine a swarm of these fully robotized tanks coming at you, assisted in targeting by a swarm of small drones over the battlefield. The tanks and drones can be programmed to act in concert, choosing targets and firing with little or no intervention from operators away from the battlefield.
The idea that tanks, drones or other robots could autonomously make decisions to kill people is a horrendous idea. But that is where things are heading, given advances in pre-programming, artificial intelligence, sensor and collision avoidance technology, combined with a sophisticated networking of communications.
But what happens when the “unintended” happens and hundreds of civilians are killed by these autonomous weapon? The army’s defence would be, “we didn’t mean to kill them, we just made a computer coding error and it all went wrong from there.” You can see that there are big problems in applying the law to the use of killer robots, which is one reason why they should be banned.
There is now an active Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose global coordinator is a New Zealander, Mary Wareham. And some progress is being made.
At a UN meeting in Geneva last April 94 countries agreed to begin formal discussions about the problems with “lethal automated weapons system” or LAWS.
For me, any killing is inhuman, but I am even more repulsed by the remote character of much of today’s high-tech killing. Some of the killing is even more emotionless than a computer game, where at least the player’s hand is on the joystick.
There is absolutely no human connection between a computer programmer writing code to guide a killer robot and an Afghan whose family home might be blown up by that fully autonomous robotic device when it is put into operation.
And because high-tech weaponry is expensive and largely the preserve of the already rich and powerful nations, its use by those nations tends to preserve their dominance, and their wealth and power.
In our fight against militarism and war we should be conscious of the danger these new high-tech weapons pose and campaign strongly against their use.
January 24th, 2017