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The “Aresian Risk” of Unmanned Maritime Systems

By Lieutenant Joseph M. Hatfield, U.S. Navy

We are about to experience a substantial influx of unmanned systems into the maritime military services. On 17 December 2013, the Royal Navy launched a Boeing ScanEagle unmanned aerial system from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay, a first for the RN in an operational theater. This places the Royal Navy alongside the British Army and Royal Air Force in demonstrated drone capability; the latter service has been operating surveillance drones in Afghanistan for years. Since 2012, ScanEagle systems have been in regular use by the Royal Canadian Navy. In May 2013, the Royal Australian Navy announced it would invest up to $3 billion on Northrop Grumman’s new MQ-4C Triton unmanned maritime patrol aircraft. Additionally, the latest Fire Scouts are coming online, Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8C, following its predecessor whose service in the U.S. Navy is now routine. A recent expansion of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., included the opening of a Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research. The U.S. Navy announced it would introduce mine-hunting surface units by 2017, and it will not be too long before General Dynamics’ Unmanned Undersea Vehicle program produces workable unmanned submarines. Most dramatically, on 10 July 2013, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B fighter drone successfully landed on board the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77).

Technological revolutions in warfare, whether bow and arrow, gunpowder, or unmanned systems, inevitably bring about a period of tumult and reshuffling. If we are lucky, such upheaval also brings systematic self-reflection. What changes might this newest revolution in maritime technology bring about?

The Real World

Because they are maritime systems, they will be forward-deployed in peacetime to a greater degree than other technologies. Because they are unmanned—their use risking no personnel—they will inevitably be used in a wider variety of contexts than current manned maritime systems. Both forward deployment and broader application place unmanned maritime systems (UMS) alongside past great technological breakthroughs. As we stand at the forefront of this revolutionary period, it is extremely important that we envision what the changes will entail and how we as military leaders should respond.

Yet attempts to forecast these consequences are invariably made from a point of view that unwittingly accepts two questionable assumptions. First, a conceptual framework that understands military force as a tool of statecraft is taken for granted. Given various policy options, this line of thought asserts, military force stands alongside many competing actions as but one policy option among many, whether economic sanctions, political incentives, alliance building, political pressure, or shame in the court of public opinion.

Second, most contemporary assessments about the introduction of UMS take for granted that because unmanned systems currently figure prominently in struggles against non-state actors, then their use against these actors is the correct context in which to understand their impact in the battlespace of the future. This second assumption is hardly surprising since impact assessments must be made with some anticipated use in mind, some view about how the new tool will be used. Uncertainty therefore draws people into analyses where the future looks a lot like a straightforward extrapolation of present trends. But even in that case this assumption overlooks cases—such as in Pakistan, near Syria, or around the contested Spratly Islands—in which the most profound risk (carrying significant political and military consequences) associated with the use of unmanned systems comes from entanglement in issues of state, not non-state, actors.

These two assumptions jointly present a mythic view of the use of new technology generally, with UMS representing a subset of this broader category. The myth is that:

• As tools, revolutionary military technologies are wielded objects under the control of an agency external to them

• Non-state actors represent a manageable alternative to the state-to-state warfare that constituted a threat to humanity throughout the 20th century

In both cases, statesmen are viewed as being in control. This is a technocentric interpretation of the relationship between the tool and the tool-wielder. Statesmen and military leaders are imagined to be free to ply the instruments of war for their own policy objectives, largely against an enemy that does not present an existential threat. Within this conceptual framework, the advent of UMS represents a mere sharpening of the tools of war; it is an improvement to an old capability. Thus, the introduction of UMS is understood as requiring mere institutional or organizational changes, but not a profound rethinking about how states conceive the relationship between themselves and the warfare they try (and increasingly fail) to control.

We need to consider what the impact of UMS will be in a world (the real one) where warfare is not merely a tool of statecraft and where state-to-state interaction increasingly constitutes the most profound risk associated with the introduction of new military technologies.

War’s True Essence

Despite the grip that the idea of war as a tool of statecraft has on our thinking, only a passing acquaintance with the actual history of modern warfare is sufficient to disabuse us of this myth. While states (particularly strong ones) enter new military adventures with high expectations that their strategies will be effective and their goals reached, they often underestimate war’s inherent capacity to invert the relationship between tool and wielder.

In Vietnam, the United States found itself transitioning from powerful tool-wielder to a disillusioned power reacting to events happening on the ground. Not only was the use of military force in Vietnam originally understood by President John F. Kennedy and subsequent U.S. administrations as a tool to (physically) roll back communist aggression in Indochina, but successful rollback as a strategy was understood as but one “domino” among many in a global conflict against Soviet expansion. That is, the war itself was a way to serve further ends. But the superior technological capabilities of the U.S. military were soon shown to be ineffective; battles were won but the war was lost.

British and American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq share similar stories of heightened expectations, proactive policy, and confident intervention, leading very quickly to dissolution, reactive policy, and withdrawal. In Libya, NATO’s “surgical” intervention helped opposition forces topple Muammar Gaddafi’s superior military by rebalancing the relative orders of battle in the opposition’s favor (using Tomahawk missiles, manned aircraft, and other technologies). Yet sharpening the instruments of the Libyan opposition hasn’t produced the anticipated effects. Libya is now a hotbed of extremist ferment and protracted political instability. The pluralist democracy once envisioned by Western leaders as the desired outcome of the intervention today seems distant.

The point is not to catalog Western failures or despair in the face of war’s difficulties, but rather to join Clausewitz and a series of more recent scholars—including Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Fussell, Michel Foucault, Tarak Barkawi, and Shane Brighton—in pointing out a feature of war that all technocentric interpretations overlook: the complexity of war is greater than the sum of its parts.1 That is, war gets a vote. Not just the parties involved, but war itself. The events of the aforementioned cases cannot be explained by mere reference to the parties involved (other tool-wielders or even the interaction among entangled forces). In each case, what Barkawi and Brighton call war’s generative power—its creative force, capable of causing political, social, and even epistemological changes—emerges as a property of martial events unconstrained by the designs of participants. Despite their intentions, war’s participants inevitably transition from being the independent variable, in scientific terms, to being the dependent variable, with war itself taking the reins. Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev eloquently expressed this feature in a letter to President John F. Kennedy, sent on 26 October 1962 at the most tumultuous moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the exceptional documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, McNamara quotes Khrushchev’s letter:

We and you ought not pull on the ends of a rope with which you have tied the knot of war. Because the more the two of us pull the tighter the knot will become. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot. And what that will mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom, they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.2

The “logic of war” of which Khrushchev spoke is the same risk that Clausewitz and his later followers highlight as war’s true essence. War turns action into reaction and inverts notions of controlled and controller.

The Aresian Factor

It is instructive to note that the ancient Greeks, through their personification of war with the god Ares, had the conceptual resources to cope with the true nature of war in a manner that has become less accessible to modern strategists. In this respect we have become rational to a fault. Like the actual warfare that defines recent experience, Ares was thought to have a mind of his own. Capable of independent action, he was no tool of men. Because of this, all Greek commanders understood warfare as a peculiarly precarious undertaking. Indeed it was Pericles who for this reason warned the audience of his famous funeral oration not to relax in the face of the perils of war.3 If an expansive use of military force risked stirring Ares, so the Greeks reasoned, its choice-worthiness ought to be considered carefully. Decisions on the battlefield were fundamentally uncertain, and even the best strategic advice was understood as doxa (opinion) not episteme (knowledge). War’s risks represent this wildcard aspect of Ares’ involvement, one that inverts subject and object turning active tool-wielders into reactive agents grappling within a fog of the unknown.

Such considerations eventually developed (with Augustine and Aquinas) into a code of individually necessary and jointly sufficient moral principles: the jus ad bellum, moral considerations germane to decisions about when it is proper to initiate armed engagement. According to this tradition, a war should only be waged by a legitimate authority having good intentions for a just cause, and only as a last resort with a reasonable chance of success.4 Finally, all use of force must have a lasting peace as its stated aim.5 This moral philosophy sometimes put the brakes on overzealous application of military force, even as the Roman Empire’s technological advances continued unabated. Yet once the technocentric interpretation of war is discarded, it is extremely difficult to answer questions about whether there is a reasonable chance of success and whether a lasting peace can be attained.

Practical Consequences

These general observations about the nature of war and the dangers of what might be called “Aresian risk” translate into a set of practical consequences germane to the introduction of UMS. If war is largely (though not completely) an uncontrollable, generative force, then any new technology that significantly expands the deployment and employment of military force risks drawing powerful states into more and more conflicts globally, conflicts of which the outcomes cannot be plausibly known.

Unmanned systems performing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations may be attacked, discovered, or captured by enemy forces—thereby inviting a powerful response. Presumably this would be aimed at upholding the “right of self-defense” norm. Whether unmanned systems should be considered as having the same status—provoking the same reaction—as manned systems is a gray area but one that could easily be used by political elements on either side to justify desired (or miscalculated) escalation. Adding to the confusion, if the unmanned platform is armed, then enemy forces may reasonably view it differently in the threat equation (capability + intent = threat) than if unarmed, regardless of its manned or unmanned status. That it is in fact armed is a matter of the accuracy of an enemy’s intelligence; and a failure to discern correctly—whether calculated or a genuine mistake—could initiate a conflict or even, Western governments need not be reminded, a war.

Consider the following very realistic scenario: An unmanned helicopter flying from the deck of a surface ship supporting an international crisis is tasked to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance of a merchant vessel suspected of acting as a communications asset for a foreign power. The ship is operating outside the range of both anti-surface and anti-air coastal defense systems; the unmanned helicopter is tasked into these weapon engagement zones because no loss of life is risked and it will remain well outside the foreign nation’s territorial waters. For whatever reason, the helicopter goes down and is suspected of having been shot down due to its position relative to enemy assets. Has the surface ship (and by extension the ship’s nation) been attacked? Had the helicopter been manned, the answer would have been an emphatic yes, though it is likely the order to fly into these engagement zones during a heightened international crisis may not have been given. If the order was given to put pilots and aircrew in harm’s way, this would have been done after a strenuous consideration of other options, possible reactions, and an overall threat calculation. The risk with UMS is that such due diligence will feature less prominently in the operational risk management of those doing the tasking.

I have personally witnessed a commanding officer raise objections up his chain of command regarding the use of manned systems (his aviation squadron) in the face of heightened tensions and increased uncertainty during an acute international crisis. In this case, higher authorities deemed the risk within acceptable limits. However, the commanding officer disagreed. In an exercise of inspiring and courageous leadership, he began personally flying the missions himself as a silent but noticeable protest—effectively raising the profile of his objections to his chain of command, but remaining satisfactorily within the strictures of the U.S. Uniformed Code of Military Justice.

With unmanned systems, this dynamic would not have played out. Yet the most profound risk associated with the manned system being shot down would not have been simply the tragedy of the loss of that squadron’s aircrew, but rather the larger context in which the United States (perhaps its allies too) would have been forced to respond—and risk entanglement in a new war.

Furthermore, since the NATO charter obligates members to defend one other if any member is attacked, the introduction of UMS represents a potentially significant increase in operational instances that might lead a member to invoke Article 5. Al Qaeda’s attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001 led some to debate whether Article 5 could be invoked in an instance when a non-state actor used non-military means. In the end, Article 5 was invoked. Given that UMS operated by a military force fits the conceptual paradigm in which the NATO charter was drafted far more closely than does the 9/11 attacks, the destruction or capture of a UMS by a foreign state’s military may not even lead to such a debate.

Mitigating the Risks

Aresian risk can be mitigated as long as those who order, approve, and implement the use of UMS—from theater commander to unit commanding officer—introduce deliberate procedures that replace the automatic scrutiny inherent in the use of manned systems. The fact that unmanned maritime systems will be forward-deployed more than those of other services (air forces and army) means that the extent to which leaders succeed or fail at habituating these mitigating procedures will largely determine whether their introduction correlates with increased overall risks to their wielders. What are these new habits?

Political and military leaders, not to mention the public at large, must be trained in the art of de-escalation in the inevitable event that UMS operating in ever more risky environments come under attack, get discovered, or are captured. Such a de-escalatory plan might include: benign situation reports prewritten as part of pre-mission preparations; public affairs talking points ready to explain (or explain away) the context for the incident; and UMS controllers implementing a yet-to-be-created operational risk management analysis that weighs operation-specific tactics against factors contributing with Aresian risk.

Politicians, including prime ministers and presidents, are notoriously subject to political influence—with the military often standing in for nonpartisan expert opinion. Therefore, the military should take the lead in ensuring that during instances of potential escalation due to conflict or mishap involving UMS, the issue does not become overly “securitized” (meaning, as defined by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies, transformed by an influential actor’s use of security-related concepts when dealing with or discussing the issue).6 Leaders can help avoid this by maintaining a neutral and professional tone, thereby preventing themselves from securitizing the issue in their incident reports. They must also remain professionally neutral when discussing follow-on securitizing statements from those with a vested interest in escalating tensions. Even if in some particular case it served U.S. interests to securitize a particular incident, history has shown that it undoubtedly serves both the military’s and the nation’s long-term interest when de-securitization is the default mode following a potentially escalatory incident. (The case of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction comes to mind.)

More generally, leaders responsible for UMS must begin to think carefully about how to conceptualize their engagement in both warfare and prewar activities. This is particularly so with respect to gray areas such as the loss of UMS in combat, their pre-combat engagement, and their status in terms of political reaction to enemy-induced mishap. Particularly, the status and significance of UMS in the laws of war must be clarified and brought to the forefront of military training. These legal issues are already on some national agendas, but the discussions have largely focused on the morality and legality of aerial drone strikes in the struggle against violent extremism, rather than more broadly on the use of unmanned systems in the context of Aresian risk.7

Perhaps most important, a real education (not mere training) in the ethics of war should be implemented as a dedicated part of a military officer’s career development. A careful consideration of the relationship between jus ad bellum principles (and to a lesser extent jus in bello) and UMS ought to inform policy decisions by theater commanders responsible for providing national leaders with military options in defense of the nation or in crisis scenarios. The current ethics-of-war modules in joint professional military education for mid-ranking officers of many Western navies merely function as ticks in the training boxes rather than as a deep and impacting means to help leaders and operators know under what conditions unmanned systems should and should not be used, what risks their use might entail, and how to mitigate them.

Unmanned maritime systems promise to revolutionize both the maritime battlespace and the services that operate within it. Traditional analyses conceive this transition to be a mere sharpening of the implements of war. Yet this perspective misunderstands war’s true nature as a generative and increasingly uncontrollable force. Correcting this mistake recognizes the increased potential for unforeseen conflict that the introduction of UMS may bring. This risk can be mitigated through a deliberate rethinking of the way in which UMS are employed, reported, and securitized. Finally, the risks associated with the introduction of UMS highlights the importance of educating military leaders in the ethics of war.

  1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969); Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1975); Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997); and Tarak Barkawi and Shane Brighton, “Powers of War: Fighting, Knowledge, and Critique,” International Political Sociology 5, no. 2 (2011): 126–43.
  2. Errol Morris, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons in the Life of Robert S. McNamara, documentary film produced and directed by Errol Morris, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 2003.
  3. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 150.
  4.  Wim Smit, Just War and Terrorism: The End of the Just War Concept? (Dudley: Peters Publishing, 2005), 8–9.
  5. Nicholas Rengger, “The Ethics of War: The Just War Tradition,” in Ethics and World Politics, Duncan Bell, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 298.
  6. Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998).
  7. Raul A. Pedrozo, “Use of Unmanned Systems to Combat Terrorism,” International Law Studies 87 (2011): 217–69.

Lieutenant Hatfield is currently serving in Sicily and is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He has published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the Armed Forces Journal, and Harvard National Security Review. His dissertation focuses on the ethics of war.


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