Privatization of Warfare
My interest in the privatization of warfare began with my research for my Master dissertation on PMCs and the United Nations at Salford University that I carried out in summer 2003. I became interested in the modern-day mercenaries, who have re-branded themselves as ‘security contractors’ or ‘Private Military Companies’. This interest eventually led to my PhD thesis on Military Privatization and the Revolution in Military Affairs. I found out that by far the biggest aspect of the business of war relates to privately provided services in the areas of research and development, logistics,training and simulation, and the operation of advanced sensors and platforms and intelligence in general.
My research on military robotics grew out of my work done on my PhD thesis. By carefully reading key RMA texts and by looking at current R&D projects in the defense industries I realized that the automation of warfare and the gradual removal of human soldiers from the battlefield is a major trend, which could have vast implications for how wars will be fought in the future. I am particularly interested in the ethical aspects of military robotics since this technology can potentially reduce the risks for the technologically more advanced side to zero while potentially putting civilians at a greater risk. Will it be possible for autonomous systems to adhere to the accepted laws of armed conflict or are future robot wars prone to be one-sided massacres in which humans only factor as victims and collateral damage of highly automated weapons systems that can operate without much human guidance or intervention. At the moment there are still few truly autonomous weapons, but it is only a matter of time before they will be used in war. Hopefully, governments and weapons designers will act responsibly in this rapidly developing arena.
After considering the possibility of completely automated warfare, which I only expect to happen in a more distant future, I realized that the current reality of military robotics is not so much characterized by truly autonomous weapons that are employed on a massive scale against enemy nations, but rather by teleoperated drones that are used for limited strikes against specific individuals. Today robotic warfare first and foremost means targeted killing with Predator, Reaper or similar drones, which have already carried out hundreds of strikes in about a dozen countries and have killed thousands of people in a more or less targeted manner. I feel very ambivalent about targeted killing because on the one hand, it does seem to limit the amount of force necessary to accomplish certain military objectives. On the other hand, drone strikes tend to be far less precise than they are advertised and their overall military effectiveness is more than doubtful. What I consider to be the most problematic aspect of the drone strikes is the secrecy surrounding them. There is almost no transparency and very little accountability despite several obvious blunders that have occurred in recent years.
Government Secrecy and Secret Technology
A major obstacle with respect to researching advanced weapons technology and covert operations such as drone strikes is the veil of government secrecy, which makes it often impossible to know what technology already exists and whether or how covert operations have taken place. Without some good understanding of the inner workings of the machinery of government secrecy it is virtually impossible to have an adequate understanding of the current reality of warfare. Since warfare is becoming increasingly a secret activity, it becomes crucial to research secrecy itself in order to get an idea of what is possible to keep secret and what cannot be kept secret. From my current research it appears that governments have been very successful in the past to keep certain controversial activities such as human experimentation secret for many decades and there are few indications that they would be less capable or less inclined to keep certain things secret. This leads to some very interesting questions and new perspectives on a variety of topics, for example, do anti-gravity aircraft already exist? can earthquakes and tsunamis be artificially created? are governments already secretly controlling the weather and the climate? There are no definite answers at the moment, but the only possibility for getting to the answers is to have a better understanding of the mechanisms and methods of government secrecy.
I am in the beginning stages of doing research on so-called ‘Non-Lethal Weapons’ , which have been debated in the military literature since the 1980s, but which have now reached not unlike robotics a degree of maturity. The term ‘Non-Lethal Weapons’ comprises of a great range of weapons that aim to incapacitate rather than kill an enemy. For example, baton rounds (rubber bullets), chemicals and gases (CS gas), adhesives, foams, and other restraints (for limiting mobility), Tasers, acoustic weapons, and directed energy weapons (microwaves, electromagnetic weapons). Militaries and law enforcement agencies are very interested in NLW because they have to operate within civilian environments and harming innocent civilians is ethically and politically problematic. Although NLWs can limit bloodshed and human suffering in war, they are also for good reasons very controversial. The critics of NLWs consider them as ‘torture tools’ and fear that they could be used with far less restraint than lethal weapons. It is often not even true that these weapons would be in every case ‘non-lethal’ as these weapons can often kill under the right circumstances. When it comes to directed energy weapons the ‘non-lethal’ effect may be optional (‘Phasers on stun’) and not an intrinsic quality of the weapon. The most promise seem to have weapons that can be described as tools of mind control and which can influence or alter/ modify the behavior of adversaries. For example, ‘voice to skull’ devices allow to beam voices directly into the minds and brains of adversaries, which can be used for demoralizing them or otherwise persuading them that resistance is futile. Electromagnetic weapons could alter the moods of targeted people and instill fear or panic in them. Used for the right purposes such weapons could be a blessing, but the possibility that governments or other non-state actors could use them for evil purposes is simply frightening.