Opinion

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Forever Vigilant? Technology and the rise of boundless warfare

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, Public Policy

Last week, Professor David Galbreath, Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, delivered his inaugural lecture on the role of technology in modern warfare. Here he writes about the issues at stake and the contemporary challenges posed by this for policy-makers and military strategists.

Professor David Galbreath delivers his inaugural lecture.

Professor David Galbreath delivers his inaugural lecture.

Talking about emerging warfare is like talking about Donald Rumsfeld's 'known-unknowns' or even 'unknown-unknowns'. The traditional approach to understanding war is that while enemies, tactics and tools change, the basic nature of war itself, as a function of politics, does not. This understanding is what we might refer to as a political theory of war, espoused by the great martial philosopher of the 19th century, Carl van Clausewitz.

My recent inaugural lecture, on the subject of technology and the rise of boundless warfare, considered whether our political theory of war may be mistakenly placing the human at the centre of an altogether unhuman system. What we might refer to instead as the 'technical human'. In doing so, it looked at how technology influences contemporary and future warfare and challenges the bounds of space, time and force.

We understand bounded war. There are enemies. There are starts and finishes. There are ideologies. We know them as we know our own identities. As Chris Hedges states, we know them because ‘war gives us meaning.’ Yet, imagine a war where the enemy becomes obtuse, hidden or dispersed. Imagine a war that appears to have no beginning, an incursion, an attack, a death or no end, no ceasefire, no peace treaty, no troop withdrawal. The bounds of contemporary warfare are, in other words, no longer there, as evident across Iraq and Syria currently with the rise of Islamic State.

War then becomes something else. We can imagine that politics still matters. That power is still projected. Perhaps, there is even still lethality. This would be a true return to nature in the Hobbesian sense: Nasty. Brutish. Short.

Why would such a form of warfare arise? Surely there are collective interests in maintaining bounded warfare as we know it. Nation-states are bounded. Militaries are built to fight bounded wars. Even Clausewitz’s trinity of relations between the military, the state and the society are bounded.

We can understand technology as applied, as used, as passive. I have agency. The technology does not have agency. Many scholars are looking at the impact of technology on defence in this fashion such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) 'drones', and airpower, processing speeds and big data, networked enabled forces and command and control.

At the same time, we can understand technology as a system, a way of doing things. This is a pervasive understanding of technology. Another way to say it is that technologies provide 'governmentalities': ways of understanding, of knowing, of seeing, of governing.

Relying on a collection of authors, most prominently Ruth Miller and her book Snarl, we look to see how technology, networks, systems are themselves constitutional elements that change the user-tool notions of warfare and blur the lines between agent and subject.

My lecture ended with three questions concerning the rise of boundless warfare:

  • What is the role for states?
  • What's the future for power and security?
  • What's the future for security and defence?

Each of these questions have serious policy implications for understanding how technology is changing both the character AND the nature of warfare.

Watch David's lecture here - http://www.bath.ac.uk/polis/news/news_0094.html

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