The ongoing remotification of warfare goes hand in hand with an increasing privatization of military activities. Whether directly, e. g. through Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), or more indirectly, e. g. through the provision of surveillance, maintenance or logistics services, more and more war-related activities are now being taken over by private actors. The causes, realities, and implications of these developments are subject of numerous scholarly as well as policy-focused works, and their immense importance for modern warfare is widely accepted. It seems therefore important to consider them within the context of the ‘fifth-generation warfare’ in order to understand how the ongoing autonomation of weapon systems and war tools, affects and is affected by the privatization.
In his paper ‘Contractors or robots? Future warfare between privatization and automation’ (2022), Antonio Calcara, political scientist at the University of Antwerp, provides interesting food for thought on this very question. On the one hand, he notes, the automation of war-related processes in many cases increases their complexity or at least their technological requirements, and therefore exceeds the expertise of conventional militaries leading to increased private involvement. For instance, Silicon Valley not only develops and provides new military technology, but in many cases also accompanies its implementation and maintenance. On the other hand, Calcara points out, that it is primarily non-lethal processes that are being automated today, such as logistical planning. Based on the assumption that it is particularly these activities that are already predominantly performed by the private sector, it follows for him that an automation would (if at all) mainly replace other private actors in today’s warfare supply chains and thereby not lead to an increase in privatization. However, this does not address recent reports that commercial actors are increasingly playing an important role in automating the kill chain. A case in point is Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley-based surveillance company specializing in data analytics, which, according to its CEO, has become “responsible for most of the targeting in Ukraine”.
Without fully resolving this tension, the paper provides important first thoughts on the interplay of privatization and automation in warfare, which has so far not played a major role in both scholarly and public debates around remote, proxy, autonomous, and robotic warfare. It therefore finishes with a call for deeper, empirical engagement with this interplay, which we would like to echo. Not only to enable an understanding of future actor constellations and accountabilities, but also to draw attention to the danger of an unregulated and uncontrolled way of warfare.
Written by IRW researcher Laszlo Steinwärder
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