Remote warriors

David Cameron’s decision to authorize the extra-judicial execution of Reyaad Khan raises some immediate issues. Beyond these, though, are conceptual questions about remote warfare using advanced technologies. These questions need to be considered because the ways in which we respond to them will shape future conflicts.

In her thought experiment framed more than fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt asked what the world would be like if the use of violence ceased to be constrained by the complexities of power and politics. Arendt was writing in a time of turbulence and change: the Cold War and nuclear armaments; anti-war protests and campus confrontations; resistance against colonialism. She conceptualized the extreme form of violence as “One against All”, a regime that would “permit one man with a push of a button to destroy whomever he pleased.”

At the time Arendt was writing, this was an impossible abstraction: “no government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis—the secret police and its net of informers”. “One against All” belonged to science fiction: “only the development of robot soldiers, which … would eliminate the human factor completely and … could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence”.

Fast forward to our world of drones. As with now-routine US strikes, the RAF Reaper that killed Khan and two others in Syria on 21 August was unmanned and remotely controlled. The operation has been legally justified as self-defence, in the face of compelling evidence that Khan and Isis were planning terrorist attacks in the UK. The surgical precision of the strike has been emphasised, in that no-one other than the intended victims was killed or injured.

There are though broader questions about drone warfare – a dark side of the digital innovation that has changed so many aspects of our lives. One set of questions is about the digital warriors; the nature of state-sanctioned violence when an enemy is killed directly from an office in Whitehall or a command centre in the English countryside. The second set is about human fallibility; what happens when the intelligence is wrong and the innocent are denied the protection of legal processes.

As David Cole puts it in a recent and insightful piece in the New York Review of Books: “the drone is in many respects the ultimate new technology that alters the relationship between government and individuals: it empowers the state to kill by remote control from thousands of miles away”. And, or course, the agent of the state is the individual operative working in the genre of a war game, but with deadly consequences. This is analogous to the wolf leaping from the pages of the fairy tale.

One of the reasons, perhaps, that these broader issues lag behind the immediacy of political justification is the sheer speed of innovation, well known as a characteristic of digital innovation in general. Back in 2001, the US military had just 82 drones, and was at an experimental stage in the deployment of this new technology. By 2010, there were eight thousand and the administration had ceased releasing information on drone strikes as a routine protocol.

In this, the nature of conflict and violence is undergoing radical changes of similar magnitude to those that concerned Hannah Arendt in the middle of the last century. The title of one of the books that Cole reviews captures this new nexus of change: “The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones: Confronting a New Age of Threat”.

But these concerns have also long been in the public domain. They were raised by the Ministry of Defence in a Joint Doctrine Note published in 2011 that was made public when it was written and still is:

Unmanned aircraft now hold a central role in modern warfare and there is a real possibility that, after many false starts and broken promises, a technological tipping point is approaching that may well deliver a genuine revolution in military affairs. However, despite the growing ubiquity of unmanned aircraft, key questions remain over how to best procure, employ and support them.

And paragraph 515, titled “The Remote Warrior”:

With kinetic operations being controlled from several thousand miles away … the concept of fighting from barracks as it has been termed raises a number of interesting areas for debate. Is the Reaper operator walking the streets of his home town after a shift a legitimate target as a combatant? Would an attack by a Taliban sympathiser be an act of war under international law or murder under the statutes of the home state? Does a person who has the right to kill as a combatant while in the control cabin cease to be a combatant that evening on his way home? More broadly, do we fully understand the psychological effects on remote operators of conducting war at a distance?

There is a cold symmetry between aspects of these military concerns and the consequences of bad intelligence in remote warfare.

The Ministry of Defence asks whether a military operative, licensed to kill remotely, continues to be a combatant – and therefore a legitimate target – when she leaves for home after a day’s work. This is of course rhetorical. There would be outrage if an armed forces employee, walking home from work through a rural town, was killed by a bolt from the sky, and all the more so if people who happened to be nearby were killed as well. Yet this, and worse, is what happens when intelligence is bad and a drone strike goes awry.

The US protocol for the legitimate use of drones was outlined by President Obama in 2013. Strikes away from a battlefield, he said, must only be to eliminate individuals who pose an imminent threat to US persons and cannot be captured. The country in which they are located must either consent to the attack or be unwilling or unable to counter the threat. There must be a “near-certainty” that no civilians will be killed or injured.

But by the time the President outlined these principles, the US’s record in ensuring that no civilians are killed and injured in drone strikes was already questionable, as Andrew Cockburn has shown in his newly-published book.

One such intelligence error killed twenty-three civilians in 2010, including two children. The video feed from a surveillance drone in Afghanistan was hazy and operatives controlling the attack remotely from the US and elsewhere could not tell difference between a man or a woman, or a shovel and a rifle. Nevertheless, the strike was authorized. The convoy turned out to be innocent: “everyone involved tried to clarify the ambiguity [of the hazy video images] by shaping the information to fit a predetermined pattern, in this case that of hostile Taliban.”

Remote warfare raises questions, and questions within questions. The clear and present danger is that the speed of technological innovation, combined with the real emergencies of the moment, preclude proper consideration of complex and difficult issues. This danger was well framed by the Ministry of Defence in its 2011 doctrine note:

Unmanned systems pose more than just legal dilemmas. The ethics and morals-related questions of when, where, and how automated or autonomous unmanned systems may be used, have been tentatively explored in academia (and in popular science fiction), but we are only now starting to require real-world answers. Many of the dilemmas apply to the use of unmanned systems in any environment, not just in the air. Beyond the question of whether an action is legal there is now the concern of whether an action is morally justified. Will the advent of increasing autonomy raise complex dilemmas centred on the moral and ethical justification of our actions? For instance, will future wars be fought remotely, at least initially, with little or no loss of friendly human life? Is human nature such that the next arms race will seek to pitch increasingly complex unmanned systems against other unmanned systems or humans?


Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”. New York, Harcourt 1969

Andrew Cockburn, “Kill Chain: the Rise of the High-Tech Assassins”. Henry Holt, 2015

David Cole “The New America: Little Privacy, Big Terror” New York Review of Books, August 13 2015

Ministry of Defence, “The UK approach to unmanned aircraft systems”. Joint Doctrine Note 2/11 (JDN 2/11), 30 March 2011.

Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum, “The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones: Confronting a New Age of Threat. Basic Books, 2014

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