“It is certain that we will see more and more missions, in many militaries, turned over to robots.” So began the Davos discussion on the future of warfare between world leaders and scholars from both sides of the Atlantic.
The opening statement was made by Mary Cummings, a professor at Duke University and one of America’s first female fighter pilots. She stressed that the future of warfare will be one that might be safer, for both the fighter and for possible victims of collateral damage.
“Even today, it is safer for the US Air Force to send a drone on a fighter/bomber mission than a human,” said Cummings, noting that Israel has already said that it will use completely unmanned fighter jets. She cautioned, however, that while billions of dollars are being spent on advanced fighter systems, like the F-35, we are at a point today where terrorist groups such as Daesh can “print” thousands of low-cost drones – via 3D printing – which could be armed with conventional or biological weapons, potentially causing more damage than an F-35. She warned, however, that “the barrier to entry to drone technology is so low, everyone can have one.”
Highlighting further concern with robots at war, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Minister of Defence of the Netherlands, said there is an important “ethical dimension to this question”. She added that “the deployment of such weapons must always include meaningful human control.” She warned of a day where “self-learning systems can modify their own rules of conduct” and that, in such cases, human control is critical.
With all the advances in military technology, it is easy to get caught up into thinking that warfare has changed completely. Not so, argued Sir Lawrence Freedman, of King’s College London. He said that military force is still fundamentally about utilizing methods to control territory and people – and that is not going away anytime soon. “Cyberattacks don’t control territory,” he added. “They are supplements.”
Freedman was equally cautious about over-hyping terrorism, which he referred to as “an entry-level strategy”. He argued that the occasional atrocity “is not really a victory” and that to make progress, it usually needs to evolve into guerrilla warfare.
Beyond terrorism, however, Freedman suggested that “the interaction between warfare and criminality is an issue”. Put simply, he said, one of the “things that sustains war is greed”. He highlighted that those involved in conflict – whether it be terrorists or others – are often involved in the trafficking of people, drugs and precious metals, and perhaps even antiquities.
Reflecting on the changes to warfare, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Crisis Group observed that “Syria is a tragic example of the type of conflict that we have now”. He said there is a conflict within Syria, between Syrians, and then there is a conflict with regional powers, for Syria, and of course, with global powers.
Cyberspace poses its own challenges which must be met with thoughtful structures, said Hennis-Plasschaert. She suggested that the Law of the Sea provides a possible model to value when debating whether there should be an international treaty for cyber-related issues. “We need international standards and norms for cyber,” she said.
The global structures to help form such standards and norms, however, are now at risk. Guéhenno noted that our “multilateral institutions are only as strong as their components.” He added that for our international system to move forward, “and for multilateral instructions to have a future, they need to adapt so that non-state legitimate actors can acquire a voice.”
And so, we are left with a society that prizes technology, but for global legitimacy, one must incorporate the most important voice – that of the common man and woman.