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Thomas E. Ricks: Technology reshaping the future of war

  • Foreign Policy
  • Published Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Changes in the nature of warfare profoundly shape both the manner in which the state is organized and the law itself. An obvious example of this is how the adoption of gunpowder warfare and the emergence of small standing armies helped to produce the absolute monarchies of the 16th and 17th centuries. In turn, the levee en masse – the mass mobilization of conscripts – by Napoleon’s revolutionary armies helped spell the beginning of the end for those monarchies. The need to raise and maintain ever-larger armies also required the creation of the apparatus of the modern state such as a census, universal taxation and basic education.

Today we are at another major inflection point, one in which technology is reshaping the way wars are fought. The future of warfare will be shaped by the role of ever-smaller drones; robots on the battlefield; offensive cyber war capabilities; extraordinary surveillance capabilities, both on the battlefield and of particular individuals; greater reliance on Special Operations Forces operating in nonconventional conflicts; the militarization of space, and a Moore’s law in biotechnology that has important implications for bio-weaponry.

Consider a few examples:

• Scientists can now manufacture living organisms, including new viruses. These breakthroughs are useful to scientists but also, potentially, to terrorists or unscrupulous states.

• Drones allow us to assassinate individuals a world away by remote control, and they are proliferating in unexpected ways. Already, the brief monopoly that the United States, Britain and Israel have had on armed drones has evaporated. China took the United States by surprise in 2010 when it unveiled 25 drone models at an air show, some of which were outfitted with the capability to fire missiles. This year the Chinese disclosed that they had planned to assassinate a notorious drug lord hiding in a remote part of Myanmar with an armed drone but opted to capture him instead.

Just as the U.S. government justifies its CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen with the argument that it is at war with terrorists such as al-Qaida and its affiliates, one could imagine that China might strike Chinese Uighur separatists in exile in Afghanistan with drones under the same rubric. Similarly, Iran, which claims to have armed drones, might attack Iranian Baluchi nationalists along its border with Pakistan.

Yet the Pentagon, with characteristic short-term thinking that focuses too much on “readiness” and not enough on “preparedness,” seems lately to be shying away from fully embracing drones, cutting spending on them while continuing to devote billions of dollars to manned warplanes.

• One potential technique in the new world of warfare is what Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation terms “cyber-siege” war. We conceptualize most hacking attacks as opportunistic, meaning they concentrate on the softest identifiable targets. However, Meinrath predicts that an enemy undermining the core functionality of our computer systems could harm our increasingly tech-reliant society and that would then lead to a more massive, far-reaching and invasive cyberattack. The NSA’s multiyear strategy to undermine commercial encryption is just such a “cyber-siege” on fundamental technological functionality. Meinrath believes we must assume that other nation states and nongovernmental forces are working along the same lines. Is China, for instance, putting “backdoors” in hardware chipsets?

A cyber-siege isn’t won or lost based upon singular battles. Instead, we have to think about how we’re bolstering defenses writ large – something that the United States is not doing. Instead, the U.S. focus is disrupting small networks of cyber-criminals. If the United States really wanted to protect the country and the privacy of individuals from what’s next, we’d be thinking in terms of standardizing and “hardening” computer systems for everyday products (cars, appliances, home-security systems, etc.); compartmentalizing data (to prevent grabbing huge amounts of customer data at once); disclosing when breaches occur (to acknowledge weaknesses and shore up defenses); and protecting consumer data (whether health, banking or social networking).

The scientific manufacture of life, the proliferation of drones and increasing opportunity of cyber-siege are just the tip of the iceberg. The evolution of surveillance technologies, space weapons and autonomous unmanned systems of all sorts are also transforming warfare.

New technologies have also democratized mass violence, enabling non-state actors to use and threaten lethal force on a scale previously associated only with states. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shattered the comfortable assumption that the United States faced only conventional state adversaries. Since Sept. 11, the United States has fought conflicts of various types against a variety of networks of nontraditional combatants, such as al-Qaida and its allied groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Taken together, recent changes both in the technological drivers of warfare and the enemies we face have erased the boundaries between what we have traditionally regarded as “war” and “peace,” military and civilian, foreign and domestic, and national and international:

•  They have blurred the lines between military law and criminal law, as the United States grapples with how to prosecute members of al-Qaida who are part of a criminal enterprise that is also at war against the United States and her allies.

•  They have blurred the lines between military and civilian roles, such as the delivery of aid and development. Consider the case of members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in war zones such as Afghanistan where they are essentially armed social workers.

•  They have blurred the lines between public and private. Private contractors now handle a considerable number of military functions that would previously have been the purview of government employees. This raises a thicket of thorny legal and accountability questions: For instance, could a contractor involved in the CIA drone program be charged with murder if a civilian is killed in a drone attack?

•  They have blurred the lines between the military and the intelligence community. It is no longer even a cause for much comment that the CIA has become something of a paramilitary organization that, even taking the most conservative estimates, has killed about 3,000 people in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen under President Obama alone.

•  They have blurred the lines between domestic and foreign. The most well-funded Pentagon spying agency, the NSA, was set up to counter the threat posed by the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. In part due to the near-impossibility of cleanly distinguishing between “domestic” and “foreign” communications, the NSA has now collected the telephone metadata of hundreds of millions of ordinary American citizens.

•  They have eroded traditional conceptions of sovereignty. With more and more states developing technologies that enable them to “reach inside” other states with relatively little immediate risk (whether using drone technologies, space-based surveillance systems or cyber tools), the nature and meaning of sovereignty is being transformed.

And so on. As historian Charles Tilly observed, “War made the state, and the state made war.” If war is changing, then the state will change, and so will the non-state organizations that increasingly challenge those states and the international organizations that seek to channel state behavior. What these changes will look like is hard to predict, but they are likely to be as profound as the shift from the pre-Westphalian world to the modern world of nation-states.

Thomas E. Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an author.

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