The United States used special forces, covert agents, mercenaries and proxy armies in order to fight wars out of the public eye during the Cold War. Such unconventional forces were then used alongside regular coalition military units during the war on terror and the associated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it is the recent and rapid development of new technologies and capabilities, such as armed drones, offensive cyber operations and mass surveillance, that has led to Western governments embracing the strategy of ‘remote warfare’ in today’s multiple and dispersed operations against violent jihadist networks, such as Islamic State.
By adopting this approach, governments are attempting to sidestep parliamentary, congressional and public oversight of their actions. This oversight ensures better military decision-making and foreign policy strategies, and its circumvention leaves the public unable to properly engage with these issues or hold politicians and military leaders to account. Policymakers approve actions using remote warfare that they may not consider if conventional military means were to be used; however, the consequences and risks of those actions do not appear to be fully understood in advance.
Since April 2014, Open Briefing has produced a series of monthly intelligence briefings on remote warfare commissioned by the Remote Control Project. Periodically, Open Briefing undertake a more in-depth assessment of the trends in remote warfare for the project. This current report sets out the findings of the third such assessment.
The first assessment, published in October 2014, highlighted the disconnect between civil society’s perception of remote warfare and the actual intentions and capabilities of governments and militaries. The second assessment, published in June 2015, explored the limits and unforeseen consequences of remote warfare. A key theme of this third assessment is the adoption of remote warfare by state and non-state actors beyond the United States and its Western allies. This includes Islamic State’s external action command mimicking special forces tactics, Russia deploying special forces units and private military contractors to Syria, the proliferation of armed drones to state and non-state adversaries, North Korean offensive cyber operations acting as a testbed for other cyber powers, and the way in which jihadist networks are melding modern encrypted communications with traditional tradecraft to elude Western surveillance efforts.
Other trends in remote warfare identified and analysed in this report include the level of transparency and oversight of special forces missions being out of step with the wider risks of miscalculation in these deployments, the rise and fall (and rise again) of private military and security companies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the future of drones in RAF operations, NATO members preparing for an increase in cyber campaigns against critical infrastructure, and the potential impact of Brexit on UK and European intelligence sharing and security operations.
These, and the other trends analysed in the following pages, are significant developments in remote warfare that warrant the deeper look provided in this report.