New wars, new technology

Associated Categories Speaking - Audio and Video,War and Peace
US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter

James Woudhuysen joined a panel discussion entitled New wars, new technology at the Battle of Ideas in the Barbican, October 2015

The rise of drones as a new kind of weapon has led many commentators to ask whether warfare has fundamentally changed. French academic and author Gregoire Chamayou argues that drones undermine the idea of a discrete battlefield and are considered ‘precise’ even though no explosive device could ever really be so. More fundamentally, they disconnect the attacker from the possibility of death, making the reality of killing people appear like playing a video game. Similar themes are explored in the culture, for example the recent Hollywood movie Good Kill. Lead actor Ethan Hawke has remarked that the drone operators’ ‘lives aren’t on the line and yet they’re making mortal decisions’.

Other new developments create different quandaries, from ISIS manipulations of social media to North Korea’s cyber-attack on Sony. The prevailing view of Russia in Ukraine is that it has begun a new kind of ‘hybrid’ warfare – a mix of propaganda, intelligence and irregular operations. Yet war also appears closer to normal life, too. We fear ‘blowback’ from the Middle East coming to our shores, such as the 7/7 bombings in London 10 years ago, and worry about young people going off to join ISIS.

But do these developments represent a break from the past or a continuation of longstanding trends? War has never stood still, and technology has always been a driving force in changing the nature of warfare. Is the drone operator sitting in America in practical terms really more disconnected from the fight than the pilot of a fast jet fighter who bombs opponents who have no weaponry capable of attacking him? Even as far back as the first Gulf War, American pilots could describe attacking Iraqi targets as a ‘turkey shoot’. The propaganda war may have moved online, but is the use of social media to recruit supporters and demoralise the enemy just an updated version of the propaganda tactics of the past? Nor is new technology necessary to fight modern wars; many of today’s insurgencies, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, use old-fashioned and crude technologies to brutal effect.

So, in what sense is war really changing? Western powers may have force on their side but often seen to be losing the battle of hearts and minds, undermining their own societies. Will old-fashioned material superiority always prevail in the long run or can new technology tip the balance of power towards the West’s new enemies?

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