Remote Warfare Roundup 005

The Remote Warfare roundup is a weekly digest of news, op-eds, podcasts and other media relevant to remote warfare. 

Soulemaini drone strike unlawful, according to UN rapporteur

Dr. Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, delivered a new report on armed drones and targeted killings this week. Covering the global proliferation of armed drones over the last five years, their complicated relationship with international law, and the absence of international scrutiny, the report provides a comprehensive overview of the contemporary use of armed drones. Lambasting the international community for its silence over this issue, Callamard pulls no punches in her critique. 

In one of the report’s most damning criticisms, it declares the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani unlawful. Airwars quotes the Rapporteur:

“By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq… the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

A concise summary of the report, courtesy of Drone Wars UK, is available here. The full report can be read here.

Reports of a Silicon Valley/military divide have been greatly exaggerated

New research from Tech Inquiry’s Jack Poulson suggests the ties between Silicon Valley and the US Government are closer and stronger than many suspected. Poulson, who quit his job at Google in 2018 over its censored “Dragonfly” search engine, analysed public (sub)contracting data from the past four years to investigate Silicon Valley’s involvement in developing technology for military and law enforcement purposes. 

Microsoft, who have held more than 5,000 contracts with the Dept. of Defense and law enforcement agencies since 2016, appear to be the biggest player in this emerging “Military-Tech Complex.” Out of a significant list of household names, only Facebook, Apple and Twitter are steering completely clear of this work.

Poulson’s research has shown both the difficulties and possibilities in studying the tech sector’s government work, a phenomenon of obvious and increasing interest to the scholars of technology and remote warfare.

The Pentagon’s sword missile isn’t an endless war feel-good story

Kelsey Atherton has penned a brief and incisive article for Responsible Statecraft on the rarely-used but much-discussed Hellfire R9X, colloquially known as the “sword missile.” Reflecting on the relationship between technological innovation and political stagnation, Atherton claims that the US “cannot engineer its way out of the so-called “War on Terror.”” Our preoccupation with the technologies of remote warfare, he implies, must not preclude serious consideration on the political processes which develop and field them.

Dutch Defence Minister announces fresh transparency moves

What do Defence Minister Bijleveld’s new civilian harm reporting procedures mean for Dutch military transparency? Airwars’ Laurie Treffers reports on the changes announced. From now on, the Dutch Red Card Holder must proactively request information regarding future airstrikes. Additionally, the Ministry of Defence will complete its internal investigations into civilian harm during the second half of 2020. 

Bijleveld’s announcement is a welcome step in the right direction, according to Airwars’ Deputy Director Dmytro Chupryna, but “the content of the data is still below standard.” The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’s own Dr. Lauren Gould concurs:

“The question remains: what information will Defensie share with parliament? They’ve stated multiple times that as a small country, the Netherlands is unequipped to independently investigate the nature of targets or the civilian casualties that occur. There’s nothing in the procedure about how they will tackle one of the main problems in the Hawijah case: that crucial information collected by the US about Dutch military actions was withheld from the Dutch parliament and public.””

Private Military Contractors obscure the true costs of war

A new study from Brown University’s Costs of War project suggests the use of Private Military Contractors does not decrease the cost of military operations – as the popular rationale for them has long claimed – but in fact makes them more expensive. In 2019, the Pentagon spent $370bn on contracting, a 164% rise over the last 19 years and more than half of its total annual budget. According to the report, private contractors lack competitive pressures to lower the prices they charge the US government and can generate excessive profits as a result. This “camo economy,” as they call it, masks the true financial and human costs of America’s post-9/11 wars.

If the use of private contractors is not as cost-effective as is so-often claimed, the natural question arises: why is it used so extensively?

Pentagon AI center shifts focus to joint war-fighting operations

Writing in C4ISRnet, Nathan Strout observes the Pentagon’s AI hub has changed tack away from mundane and non-offensive uses of AI and towards joint war-fighting operations. Leveraging AI to “create a decisive advantage for the American war fighter,” marks a clear departure from its prior focus on the less lethal tasks like predictive maintenance it previously emphasised. Despite assurances that an unnamed flagship project would “involve human operators and full human control,” concerns over the rise of killer robots remain.