IRW panel: Future of War Conference

On a warm autumn day at the beginning of September, several hundred scholars and practitioners gathered at the Dutch Marine Establishment in Amsterdam for three days of discussions, roundtables, keynotes, and reflections on the Future of War.

Organised by the Netherlands Defence Academy in collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre, the Future of War conference was set against a deteriorating security context, as surging tensions between major military powers and rapid advancements in the military tools at their disposal loom large on the geopolitical horizon.

Examining the character of future war and imagining the pathways through which our use of violence might evolve over the coming decades allows conflict analysts to step into the conflicts of tomorrow, anticipating issues and challenges and identifying pathways towards a safer and more peaceful future. Yet these exercises need to remain grounded in the realities of the present. How is the pursuit of future war reshaping the practices of today?

Researchers from the Intimacies of Remote Warfare were pleased to host a panel at the conference that focused on this issue. Titled ‘Prototyping the Future of War: Imagining Ludic, Hybrid, and Autonomous Warfare’, the panel embedded a focus on the imaginaries – the collective, publicly performed visions of the future – that war relies upon. These imaginaries are central to shaping the current and future behaviour in war, as well as to constructing the subjective experiences of war – they act on both the past and the future to shape violence.

The panel included three papers, each speaking to a different aspect of imaginaries and practices, from their politically and ethically contested generation through to their actualised impacts on the way wars are prepared for and fought.

The first paper, ‘Prototype Warfare: Innovation, Technology, and Experimentation’, was co-authored by Marijn Hoijtink, Associate Professor in International Politics at the University of Antwerp, and IRW’s dr. Lauren Gould, Jack Davies and Martine Jaarsma. The paper studies the pursuit of algorithmic tools for warfare within the Dutch armed forces. It identifies three logics that are typical for the context of the Dutch military, but are also observable elsewhere. The first is driven by an emerging discursive understanding of innovation as linked to Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurialism and design. Second, it relies on informality in the sense that it favours a form of innovation that is largely ad hoc, reliant on interpersonal networks, and undertaken outside of the formal structures of the military. Third, it is based on practices of prototyping and experimentation, which are in turn driving a constant need for data collection and ‘in the field’ tests of prototype tools. They conclude by outlining how technological innovation not only shapes the way war is imagined, practiced, contested and institutionalized,  but in itself is already inherently violent.

The second paper was authored by Sofie van der Maarel, PhD candidate Department of International Relations at Radboud University Nijmegen, and Military Management Studies Research Center in Breda. Sofie’s paper, ‘Sociotechnical Imaginary of an ‘Innovative Military Future’: Technological Innovation, Expectations and Imaginaries at a Military Innovation Unit’, identifies a dominant imaginary of an ‘innovative military future’. Sofie argues that this imaginary serves to set expectations among military personnel, and asks and explores what the implications are for these individuals when the reality fails to live up to these expectations.

The final paper ‘Crimes of Dispassion: The Moral Challenge of Systematic Killing’, was co-authored by Neil Renic, Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, and Elke Schwarz, Lecturer in Political Theory at the Queen Mary University of London. Neil and Elke’s paper speaks to another theme emerging from the conference – that of the human versus the technological. Many scholars were quick to point out that this is a false dichotomy, with the reality being that the two blend, intersect and interact constantly within war. The paper shines a light on the moral challenges of systematic killing through autonomous weapons, in which humans are dehumanised, categorised and subsequently allowed to live or die according to that categorisation.

The panellists were joined by an excellent discussant, Caroline Holmqvist, Senior Lecturer in War Studies at the Swedish Defence University. Caroline’s work follows a variety of core tracks, including war and the human subject, asking the question of what it means to be human, and in what ways this question is affected by violence and war.

See here for the conference programme.