Challenges to peace and security in times of drones, robots and digital warfare

Since the failure of the Bundeswehr’s controversial Euro Hawk project, Germany is now also experiencing a frank, public debate about drones. However, the discussion is still being shaped by day-to-day political considerations, while broader security aspects of the new weapons technology remain largely on the sidelines. The objective of the 14th Annual Foreign Policy Conference of the Heinrich Böll Foundation was to fill this gap. It not only examined the common fear of “killer robots”, but also the many ethical, international law and disarmament policy issues associated with the seemingly unstoppable technological development of unmanned warfare. The lively discussions between the policy experts and researchers from numerous countries conveyed a good impression of ​​the complex issues that have arisen here. While the current practice of targeted killings by U.S. drones was met with nearly unanimous criticism, the ethical and international law dimensions of the growing automation of warfare proved controversial. The only possible conclusion was therefore that the debate is only just beginning – and not just in Germany.

Technology as a warmonger?

The U.S. “war on terror” has driven the evolution of combat drones from a futuristic concept to an almost everyday military resource within a few short years. 87 countries worldwide currently have – mainly unarmed – unmanned aerial vehicles in their arsenals. During the conference drones were repeatedly characterized as a “military revolution”, and this view was shared by Peter Singer in Washington, who took part via a videoconference link. Singer, an expert on modern military technology at the Brookings Institution, regards the development of drone technology to be in the same league as the invention of firearms and combat aircraft. Despite their great significance, Singer considers drones to be only a part of a much broader societal upheaval, however. Be it artificial intelligence, cyberspace or the biotechnical “enhancement” of humans, two aspects stood out in the areas he described: Technological development appears to be progressing at a pace that is making a concomitant adjustment of political and ethical frameworks increasingly difficult. According to Singer, the drone controversy that is only beginning to take shape is revolving around models that are already obsolete. Furthermore, the new systems are becoming increasingly autonomous. In the past, humans had been in the loop in central decision-making processes. With today’s combat drones, however, humans have been “demoted” to mere observers and triggers of predefined technical procedures (“on the loop”). Ultimately, fully automated weapons systems that identify their targets and decide on the use of lethal force solely on the basis of programmed algorithms are within the realm of possibility. 

Peter Singer’s account of the enormous potential of new weapons technologies was seen by many as a list of horrors containing countless new threat scenarios. Presenter Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, raised the question of whether the new technological options also lower the threshold for their military deployment. Would military action against Taliban militants in Pakistan have even been conceivable without drones? Ralf Fücks, Co-President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, pointed out the potential escalation dynamics of the new technologies that could lead to a swifter militarization of conflicts. The U.S. strategy expert Peter Dombrowski of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, was not able to follow these fears. He emphasized that in spite of everything, drones are still a tactical tool, and that their strategic importance should not be overstated. The technological development in the U.S. is also embedded in democratic negotiation processes; decisions on war are therefore still political in nature. Marcel Dickow, technology and security expert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, concurred with Dombrowski. While the armed services certainly appreciate drones, they are not seen as a panacea in Germany or elsewhere. Their deployment in Pakistan by the CIA was ultimately a covert operation for which other resources, such as missiles or special services, would also have been available. Omid Nouripour, security policy spokesperson of the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group, was not convinced by this line of argumentation. Drones would already lower the threshold to war by helping prevent own losses. Politicians who would no longer face the prospect of coffins returning home could justify an operation more easily, Nouripour maintained.

The ethics of war in asymmetric conflicts

While the Greens had lost their “pacifist innocence” long ago and “for good reason”, as Ralf Fücks observed, military policy conferences such as this one were still not an everyday occurrence. Some participants noted that Germany as a whole may have deficits in this regard. Herfried Münkler, a political scientist at Berlin’s Humboldt University was introduced as one of the few German theorists of war – if not the only one. It is likely that Fücks was not the only participant to be mildly provoked by Münkler’s assertion that the controversial combat drones represent a positive development in weapons technology.

In the broad historical arc of his presentation, Münkler recalled that the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once considered the revolutionary invention of the firearm as a progressive driving force in society. The aristocratic age’s central ideal of the “heroic individual” had faded because the new weapons required combatants to be integrated in a general force. An unintended consequence for the participating actors was also the accelerated emergence of the new bourgeois society, Münkler explained. Unlike Kant, who wanted to formulate a universal code of ethics for war that would be independent of such developments, Hegel considered the ethics of war to be a reflection of the values of a given society: The “heroic” society thus evolved into the modern “post-heroic” form, one in which suffering and loss would no longer be regarded as an expression of honor, but as an occasion for compensation claims, as Münkler pointedly put it.

In this light, the terrorist threat from radical non-state groups such as al-Qaeda must be understood as an asymmetric challenge to post-heroic society by “heroic communities”, he added. The advantage of superiority in weapons technology is shadowed here by a greater vulnerability to suicide bombers and other threats: post-heroic societies are neither willing nor able to sacrifice countless fighters of their own. In Münkler’s opinion, the arrival of the drone in the military arsenals of modern societies must be viewed in many ways as a suitable solution to this problem. Firstly, the enemy can be found and attacked effectively without risking the lives of one’s own soldiers; furthermore, the high accuracy of the new weapons keeps the number of civilian casualties – the “collateral damage” – from such operations relatively low.

Münkler succinctly rejected the moral condemnation of drone technology in the public debate (Jakob Augstein: “the cowardly weapon of the white man”: “Criticism of drones is an expression of the ethics of a pre-bourgeois society with heroic ideals in a nostalgic form.” Anyone who demands self-imposed limits in weapons technology in asymmetric conflicts for ethical reasons without considering the lack of limits of the adversary has not understood the “nature of battle”. From the ethical perspective in particular, the new technology must be seen as progress, compensating as it does for the cognitive shortcomings of soldiers by reducing bad decisions and the associated number of unwanted casualties. Münkler was also convinced that the high-casualty mass wars between states of the past have become unlikely because of the mutual vulnerability of post-heroic societies. The future will be marked by “surgical” operations. The ethics of war have evolved in parallel in the Hegelian sense: The asymmetric conflicts of the present, which take place largely unnoticed by the public, have developed their own ethics of self-control and restraint. Drones and other automated weapons systems play an increasingly important role in this regard. Spectacular deployments such as the complex U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden are realized above all for their symbolic value, “but the machine takes care of the rest.”

While Münkler’s categorical defense of the drone was not shared by all conference participants, most experts on security policy and international law also reject their blanket condemnation for moral reasons. For many, drones were essentially military tools. Wolfgang Richter of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs – himself a retired colonel – was not the only participant to conceive of effective and legally compliant deployment scenarios in which the long observation times and greater accuracy of drones make them superior to conventional cruise missiles.

Armin Krishnan, military scholar at the University of Texas, saw the role of asymmetric conflicts highlighted by Münkler above all as a warning. The drone deployments in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen were being run by the CIA, not by the U.S. military. This not only blurs the boundaries between war and peace, but also between combatants and civilians. Krishnan was more skeptical than Münkler of “shadow wars” of this kind for legal and ethical reasons, but he also anticipates them to become the dominant model of conflict. This highlighting of asymmetric conflicts did not remain uncontested. Richter warned of a dangerous dissolution of limits in the world of states and international law, as countries such as China or India could follow the American lead and launch their own drone campaigns in other countries. He reminded listeners of the current arms race in Asia and the numerous wars between states in the recent past. Symmetrical conflicts must not be underestimated as a serious threat to international security, Richter noted. Armed drone fleets can also be deployed in such wars, of course.

International law also applies to shadow wars

The “wars without a declaration of war” (Fücks) described by Münkler and Krishnan confronted the conference participants with the issue of the international legal legitimacy of targeted killings. Münkler insisted in his presentation that such operations should not be rejected per se on ethical grounds. Daniel Statman, professor of philosophy at Haifa University, underscored this argument. Like Münkler, he pointed out the reduced collateral damage arising from the targeted killing of precisely identified enemies. Especially in comparison to conventional military operations, in which enemy combatants are considered to be legitimate targets regardless of their individual guilt, targeted killings are preferable from an ethical perspective. According to Statman, the institutional control over such operations is much more stringent than for conventional deployments, in which the commanding officer usually makes life-or-death decisions on the spot. Danny Rothschild of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, a retired general with over thirty years of military experience, confirmed this institutional regulation and explained that the authorization of targeted killings in Israel required a review process with up to six levels, in some cases extending up to the Prime Minister.

While the topic of the Israeli practice of targeted killings was only peripheral to the conference, the discussion of American drone strikes quickly revealed that many participants had serious doubts about their legitimacy in international law. The U.S. government's apparent justification of the drone war following a long silence was criticized as a “tacit dilution” of international law criteria by Claus Kress, professor of criminal law and international law at the University of Cologne . Kress did not question the fundamental legitimacy of either the U.S. right to self-defense against “non-international armed” threats as defined by international law, or its claimed right to target and kill individual al-Qaeda “combatants” and “associated groups”. However, the interpretations of both arguments had been “overstretched” by the United States in the “post-Afghan phase” of the war on terror at the very latest. The recognized “non-international armed conflict” in Afghanistan must remain an “emergency regime” under international law and may not be expanded on the basis of generalized justifications, Kress emphasized. Even many U.S. experts are convinced that the quasi-military threat from al-Qaeda is no longer so intense that it would justify further military action. To date, the U.S. has not provided a convincing justification of its expansion of targeted killings to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A threat to American security comparable to 9/11 certainly does not emanate from these sovereign states, Kress maintained. Wolfgang Richter added that many drone strikes are covert operations that cannot be regarded as acts of war, and are thus subject to international human rights instruments. With this policy, the U.S. government had consciously entered a gray area in international law. Richter was convinced that the CIA’s targeted killings in Pakistan would thus be considered illegal under international law.

In addition to the dubious international expansion of the conflict originally limited to Afghanistan, the U.S. position on other principles of international law was also met with criticism. Richter doubted that the U.S. government went far enough in differentiating between combatants and non-combatants, or in applying the principle of proportionality in its operations. This was particularly true for “signature strikes”, in which suspects are selected as targets on the basis of uncertain factors. Daphne Eviatar of the U.S. NGO Human Rights First noted that international drone strikes by the U.S. had resulted in an estimated 4,700 fatalities. Were the supposedly legitimate targets indeed always “militants”, or could the victims have also included cooks or drivers? Do militant opponents of the government in Yemen truly pose a direct threat to American security? Were the available options to arrest suspects truly exhausted as an alternative to killing them by drone?

These unresolved issues prompted another one for many guests: Will it be necessary to update international law in the face of asymmetric conflicts and targeted killings? The international law experts in attendance did not see this as a fundamental necessity. Claus Kress referred to the model of the “non-international armed conflict” and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which cover both military and intelligence operations, in principle without regard for the weapons used. A statutory definition of the general principles of international law would perhaps be desirable, but difficult to enforce given the differences in international interests. Those wanting to legally contain the new conflicts would therefore have to make do with “second-best solutions” in the form of new informal standards, Kress explained. The customary international humanitarian law study (Download [PDF]) of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of 2005 is one such attempt to address the previously unresolved issues of non-international armed conflicts.

Combat drones for the Bundeswehr?

If drones are viewed merely as a military “tool”, then little would speak against equipping the Bundeswehr with them at first glance. Plans to that effect could be justified above all with the enhanced protection of the Bundeswehr’s own soldiers. The prominent role of drone operations in the American war on terror, however, has ensured that this argument will be met with suspicion. The Green MPs Omid Nouripour and Agnieszka Brugger put the negative position of their party primarily down to the lack of convincing deployment strategies. To date, the German government has not been able to adequately explain how the army would use combat drones. While Germany has so far rejected an American-style war on terror, treaty obligations could soften the Bundeswehr’s commitment in this regard, Brugger feared.

While the Bundeswehr had to cancel its participation in the conference at short notice, most experts were still in agreement that the deployment of combat drones should be rejected, and not solely because of their problematic use by the United States. Claus Kress expressed his belief that German policymakers would not condone unconstitutional operations, with or without combat drones. Wolfgang Richter recalled the parliamentary approval requirement for military operations. The debate in Germany is currently “suffering” under the American drone war, which does not represent a “blueprint” for future German military missions. The lack of international legitimacy of a weapon cannot be inferred from its deployment in a manner contrary to international law. In summary, Richter noted that it would not be possible to reconcile a drone war of this kind with Germany’s political culture; it would clearly be unconstitutional and a parliamentary majority for such action would be highly unlikely.

Cyberspace: the 21st-century battleground

While the panel discussions of the conference revolved mainly around drone technology, Peter Singer asserted that the battlefield of the 21st century will be shifting increasingly into cyberspace. Already today, the role of the Internet in everyday life and for the military can hardly be overestimated. For example, the scope of international networking is reflected by the fact that even the U.S. government realizes 98% of its Internet communication over public networks. An inevitable side effect of this development is the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and networked weapons systems to hacking and tampering, Singer noted. Sandro Gaycken, IT expert at the Institute of Computer Science, Free University Berlin, explained that the purpose of such attacks could be to spy on an adversary or identify vulnerabilities for a conventional attack. Current operations of this kind are also a symbolic demonstration of one’s own strength. Especially in comparison to conventional military operations, the cost of cyber-warfare is negligible, Gaycken explained: the estimated cost of the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a mere four million euros.

Ralf Fücks noted that the special nature of cyber-warfare raises its very own international legal issues. When malfunctions occur, are they due to system failures or attacks? How exactly can attacks be traced? When are governments responsible for attacks by non-state actors on their territory? When do states have the right to respond to cyber-attacks with conventional military strikes? According to Sandro Gaycken, the U.S. government has already announced a doctrine for such counterstrikes. It is not yet clear whether other states will follow suit, but any such response would be subject to particular pressure to explain the origin of the attacks.

To solve the problem of verification, Jürgen Altmann, physicist and peace researcher at TU Dortmund University, proposed the effective deployment of current governmental surveillance technologies. As long as such monitoring remains limited to the security aspect, Altman believed that it should not be categorically rejected as “anti-democratic”. Sandro Gaycken proposed starting with the costs and increasing the consequences of cyber-attacks for the attacker. States could also develop proprietary software and hardware within three to four years to effectively protect their security-relevant IT infrastructure against attacks for a modest investment.

“The robot is coming.”

In light of technological progress and increasing networking, the development of fully automatic weapons systems appears to be only a matter of time. Daniel Statman, professor of philosophy at Haifa University, did not consider this to be a fundamental problem. He argued that the use of fully automatic weapons systems should not be categorically rejected, considering the almost boundless confidence in effective civilian technologies such as GPS navigation. Future advances in programming would allow increasingly precise military operations while minimizing collateral damage. In addition, the deterrent effect of automatic systems should not be underestimated in scenarios such as border security. This fundamental confidence in the possibilities of technology was not shared by many conference guests. Jürgen Altmann criticized Statman for forgetting the resulting interactions in the international system, as these could lead to corresponding countermeasures, and ultimately a new arms race. Niklas Schörnig of the Peace Research Institute highlighted the vulnerability of highly complex computer systems and the ease with which they can be manipulated. Statman’s deterrence argument, which was a surely unintentional reminder of the spring guns once deployed along the fortifications of the former inner-German border, was questioned by Daphne Eviatar, who noted that innocent adults or children could approach the automatically secured zones.

The participating experts focused the numerous objections to new “killer robots” on two key tenets of international humanitarian law: the distinction between civilians and combatants, and the principle of proportionality, which dictates the scope of a military response. Philipp Stroh of the Institute for Public, International and European Law of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, noted that international humanitarian law is bound to evaluation to a particularly high degree. In reality, decisions about the use of lethal force are often highly complex and should therefore be made by well-trained and experienced military personnel. According to Stroh, autonomous weapons are not even remotely able to do so at present. Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics, University of Sheffield, agreed with this appraisal from the technological perspective. The abilities of autonomous weapons systems to identify legitimate targets are still very poor. To date, the principle of proportionality has played no role whatsoever in their development.

In the view of the international law experts Claus Kress and Wolfgang Richter, possible deployment scenarios for fully autonomous weapons are limited to a number of strictly defensive systems such as the Israeli Iron Dome missile shield, or to evacuated combat zones with clear military targets. Apart from that, Richter was convinced that the possible deployment of such systems would be limited to the lowest operational level. Peter Singer also doubted that the development of military technology would cross the “red line” – autonomous military robots have not been given serious consideration by U.S. political or military authorities to date. Other attending experts were not so sure. According to Sharkey, the transition to fully automatic weapons systems would not even require major advances in artificial intelligence, as he explained using the example of the Bundeswehr’s MANTIS  targeting and interception system. Marcel Dickow was able to confirm from his own conversations with military leaders that the armed forces are currently deterred by a loss of control to machines. He nevertheless pointed out that some of the current weapons systems are already so advanced that their automatic deployment would be comparatively easy to implement, and could even be required by certain conditions. Even if a human should remain at the end of the decision-making chain, the system could significantly reduce or eliminate human discretion through automatic preliminary decisions.

A new arms race is looming

Would it be best to prohibit autonomous weapons immediately? Agnieszka Brugger, disarmament policy spokesperson of the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group, considered this to be the best solution, given the presented issues. In the debate surrounding new weapons technologies, attention is rarely focused on the risk of unchecked proliferation among governmental and non-governmental actors. Noel Sharkey also deemed it necessary to establish “red lines” now. The UN expert Christof Heyns has already initiated the debate on this issue, proposing an international moratorium on the development and deployment of lethal autonomous weapons systems. Jürgen Altmann referred to the international prohibition of biological and chemical weapons as a model for successful arms control. Such a moratorium could be enforced by the setting of strict standards by the UN, as well as practical measures such as the encrypted recording of electronic data of automatic weapons systems in combat situations. While this would not prevent violations, it would at least be possible to subsequently provide forensic proof thereof.

With regard to current combat drones, a number of panelists considered similarly strict regulation at the international level to be necessary. Omid Nouripour proposed that combat drones be declared military systems, and as a minimum, to prohibit their use by intelligence agencies. However, experts such as Ambassador Rolf Nikel, the federal government commissioner for disarmament and arms control in the German Foreign Office, agreed that a prohibition of drones would be virtually impossible to enforce internationally. Nikel observed that past attempts at international arms control were successful only if states agreed that devices such as landmines or nuclear weapons were obsolete or overrated. Many states are presently convinced of the positive potential of drone technology. Thanks to their wide range of applications in the military and civilian sectors, the further development of the technology in terms of capability is virtually unstoppable. Nikel and others nevertheless considered quantitative arms control measures to be a promising approach. The German government therefore advocates the classification of drones as “aircraft” in the UN Register of Conventional Arms and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE). The establishment of an international panel of experts to set up guidelines and recommendations for the further development of new weapons technology proposed by UN expert Christof Heyns also met Nikel’s approval. The diplomat considered further-reaching endeavors, such as those called for by Agnieszka Brugger, as hopeless: the failure of ambitious international attempts at regulation could possibly throw efforts back “by years”.

Rolf Nikel’s skepticism about political advances toward a comprehensive international containment of new weapons technologies was shared by many international conference guests. Danny Rothschild left no doubt that the principle of self-defense would always have priority for Israel. Al-Qaeda would hardly comply with international agreements, and Rothschild therefore considered a voluntary ban on effective military technologies to be out of the question. While Yabin Liang of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies – who came to the conference from Beijing – described the Chinese drone program as a strategic response to comparable Western programs, he repeatedly emphasized that this was not the only field in which China intended to catch up technologically.

Open criticism or quiet diplomacy?

The United States could prove to be the biggest obstacle to the international regulation of new high-tech weapons. According to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the political debate in Washington pertaining to armed drones revolves primarily around issues of military efficiency. In his meetings with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, Zenko had repeatedly encountered an astonishing lack of interest and even ignorance with regard to the attendant effects of the drone war and the future risks of the technology. Without the pressure of “respected voices” outside of Washington, this attitude is unlikely to change. Zenko described the fact that Europe – with the exception of Denmark and the Netherlands – had not taken a public stance in recent years against the controversial targeted killings by U.S. drones as “scandalous”.

Agnieszka Brugger directed Zenko’s criticism directly at the German government and its vague statements on U.S. drone policy. As a government representative, Rolf Nikel was not willing to simply accept this reproach, and assured the listeners that such issues are clearly addressed behind closed doors at the diplomatic level. U.S. President Obama’s recent drone policy course change was also a response to confidential criticism by his allies, said Nikel.

The opinion that diplomatic criticism need not be repeated in public was not shared by everyone. Europe’s silence could also be interpreted as tacit approval and lead to a long-term change of customary international law, warned Claus Kress. The German government should therefore consciously take advantage of parliamentary inquiries and similar opportunities to articulate its own point of view. Daphne Eviatar was also of the opinion that Germany and Europe could do much more in this regard. In Pakistan, for example, the U.S depends on the cooperation of the secret services. In future, Europeans would only be able to approve such cooperation publicly and under certain conditions. The threat of limiting the efficiency of drone warfare would be perceived in Washington, while also providing effective arguments to the American campaign against the Obama administration’s drone policy.


Translation: John Hayduska