Putting controls on remote warfare to protect civilians

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

By Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 4 Winter 2019

Earlier this year, Amnesty International (AI) released a report, The Hidden US War in Somalia: Civilian Casualties from Air Strikes in Lower Shabelle. According to this report, which explored five incidents, at least 14 civilians had been killed by airstrikes from both manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones).

The U.S. Pentagon initially responded that no civilians had died from U.S. strikes in Somalia in the previous two years. Then, in early April, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) admitted that two civilians had died in operations investigated by AI.

We don’t know how many casualties actually resulted from the more than 76 AFRICOM strikes. While AI and the British “collaborative, not-for-profit transparency project” Airwars, among others, continue to investigate, all that is clear is that civilian casualties are not being accurately monitored or disclosed. No responsibility is being assigned or assumed.

Remote strategies meet new tech

The increasing use of long-range strikes is one indicator of so-called remote warfare. Oxford Research Group, with its Remote Warfare Programme, defines this style of warfighting for the British context: “This involves supporting local groups – who are now doing the bulk of the frontline fighting against terrorist groups – in an attempt to counter threats without putting large numbers of British boots on the ground.”

In recent years, other countries have also begun to turn to remote warfare. Canada and many other allies of the United Kingdom and the United States are becoming more involved in special operations and remote engagements.

A large part of the appeal of remote operations relates to the increasing risk aversion of Western militaries. In addition, such operations are not yet subjected to the same level of public oversight and scrutiny as more traditional troop deployments during a time of war.

For example, in March 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a directive that deemed part of Somalia an “area of active hostilities”; as a result, interagency vetting of a target is no longer required and the target does not have to be deemed a threat to the United States. As AFRICOM Commander Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser stated before Congress, “I wouldn’t characterize that we’re at war. It’s specifically designed for us not to own that.”

Simultaneously, more national militaries are acquiring armed drones. To date, according to Dan Gettinger in The Drone Databook, 30 countries have high-altitude long-endurance drones that can carry a variety of weapons, and 10 have used armed drones in combat. These and other long-range weapons are increasingly used in areas that are not traditional battlefields.

The Royal Canadian Air Force hopes to acquire armed drones within six years. Canada’s Department of National Defence has moved ahead with discussions to acquire the Heron and MQ-9 drones, with the awarding of contracts likely in 2022-2023.

Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are also being looked at by most advanced militaries to further reduce troop casualties and allow for greater reach in remote operations. New investments in and testing of swarm technologies, which are essentially interconnected systems, were described in a major BBC News story by Thomas McMullan in March of this year. Such developments raise concerns among analysts that autonomous systems could soon operate with diminished human control.

Blurring the lines between civilians and combatants

All these developments are particularly concerning when examined in conjunction with current practices that blur the lines between civilians and combatants. About U.S. involvement in Somalia, the AI report notes, “According to [U.S.] General Bolduc, all military-aged males observed with known Al-Shabaab members, inside specific areas—areas in which the US military has deemed the population to be supporting or sympathetic to Al-Shabaab—are now considered legitimate military targets.” The expansion of the definition of a legitimate military target reveals one way in which information about civilian casualties can be manipulated and concealed.

Moreover, as Sarah Shoker, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Waterloo, points out, this designation of military-aged males undermines the protections guaranteed by international humanitarian law (IHL). In a 2017 blog by Christa Blackmon on the Lawyers, Guns & Money website, Shoker states, “In IHL, a civilian is anyone who is not a combatant. Civilian status is not determined by gender, age, or race. But these factors are, increasingly, becoming central to American war fighting.”

In her research, Shoker demonstrates that even broader stereotypes about gender and religion are shaping who is put in the “collateral damage” column and who is counted as a combatant. One result: young boys are deemed legitimate targets.

Concealing the human cost of war

Remote warfare operations conceal the real human costs. They decrease the likelihood of casualties among the military personnel of the striking side, encouraging citizens of that country or countries to believe, falsely, that such military actions have a limited impact. Preserving ignorance becomes important to the striking force.

As professors Robert Johns and Graeme A.M. Davies explain in “Civilian Casualties and Public Support for Military Action: Experimental Evidence,” in the Journal of Conflict Resolution (2017), the public in the United States and the United Kingdom are averse to the idea that their militaries cause foreign civilian casualties. Support for military operations declines significantly when the number of civilian casualties, either projected or actual, is high. Thus, an account to a home audience could downplay or omit any discussion of foreign civilian casualties.

These findings suggest that transparency about casualties could impact public opinion, which in turn could constrain military force.

The problem: how to get national militaries to release accurate and complete information. The solution might mean bypassing the military altogether. Local populations possess valuable information about the deaths and injuries of their families and friends.

Still, military forces retain a critical role in ensuring that civilians are protected. Some militaries, including those of the United States and Canada, already have strategies that seek to limit civilian casualties. But more needs to be done to ensure that these strategies reflect realities on the ground and that norms of international humanitarian law are not being eroded.

Democratic societies expect and require transparency and civilian oversight of military engagements. Civil-society groups, such as Airwars and Every Casualty, have been crucial in monitoring civilian casualties and bringing attention to the lack of reporting on such consequences of armed conflict. With others, they are demanding that countries review their monitoring and reporting of civilian harm.

Ending the “age of impunity”

Civilians now make up most war casualties, with no one held liable. Without a transparent accounting of such losses, we could stay mired in what David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary and president of the International Rescue Committee, has called the “age of impunity.” Miliband writes of a new normal in conflict zones in which “civilians [are] fair game, humanitarians unfortunate collateral, investigations and accountability an optional extra.”

National and international defence and security policies must promote greater transparency and acknowledge impacts on civilians. Victims’ rights must be preserved through stronger legal instruments.

Achieving such results will require greater contributions by nonmilitary groups, particularly civil-society organizations. Without a strong civil-society voice, the result will be even greater silence over civilian casualties and greater public ignorance about military engagements abroad. And that should worry us all.

Photo: In stills taken from a public video, a U.S. Predator Drone targets what appear to be insurgents in Iraq. 

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