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Blowback: The failure of remote-control warfare

by Chris Abbott
French soldier on patrol in Paris, 12 January 2015 (Photo: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
French soldier on patrol in Paris, 12 January 2015 (Photo: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

It all seemed so convenient: remote-control warfare would minimise military casualties while rendering the civilian dead invisible. But the battlefield has come home.

As Europe still reels from the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks in Paris, something far more profound to Western security is happening largely unnoticed—the failure of remote-control warfare. Open Briefing’s remote-control warfare briefing for January, commissioned by the Remote Control project, identified and analysed several trends, which taken together indicate the tactics and technologies deployed are coming back to haunt those Western powers that have embraced them in recent years.

‘Slain dragon’

To fully understand remote-control warfare, one must first go back to the aftermath of the cold war. In characterising the security situation at that time, James Woolsey, the nominee for CIA director of the US president, Bill Clinton, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on 2 February 1993: “We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways
 the dragon was easier to keep track of.”

As the ‘dragon’ of the Soviet Union lay dead, the US and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation applied their military resources to maintaining the status quo through a control paradigm, which attempted to keep the lid on insecurity and contain it ‘over there’. This appeared to work for a time through the 1990s, with wars in Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo allowing the US and NATO to demonstrate their military might.

So when the attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the US momentarily to its knees, the president, George W. Bush, and the neoconservatives in his administration attempted to mould al-Qaeda, together with the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and even Iran, into a new dragon. Its guise was global Islamo-fascism—crudely drawing an analogy between extremist Islamist movements and the ultimate 20th-century evil.

As its tanks and infantry successfully moved through Afghanistan and then Iraq, it seemed the US might once more be victorious in this so-called clash of good and evil. But the dragon turned out to be snakes after all and ‘mission accomplished’ quickly became the Long War, with the US and its allies bogged down in insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fast-forward 10 years and what they were willing to consider victory had morphed into anything that could be made not to look like defeat.

New way of war

With its fingers burnt by the cost in lives, resources and political capital of being an occupying power, the US developed a new way of conceptualising and executing war. Although its origins lay in Bush’s armed drone campaign in Afghanistan and the rise of private military contractors in Iraq, this emerging framework was embraced and expanded by the administration of Barack Obama.

The US led the way in effecting warfare at a distance, relying on smart technologies and light-footprint deployments rather than more traditional military approaches. With the rise of austerity in Europe, other Western states have adopted part or all of the remote-control approach. The strategy remains the same—maintain the status quo by controlling insecurity ‘over there’—but the arm’s length means are radically different.

Policy-makers and military planners have promoted tactics and technologies deemed to have worked during the ‘war on terror’ and associated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The five key aspects of remote-control warfare developed by the US are: special-operations forces; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; unmanned vehicles and autonomous weapons systems; private military and security companies; and cyber warfare.

While in some respects more attractive than large-scale military operations, remote-control warfare has two significant disadvantages. It allows actions to be approved that would never be considered if conventional military means were to be used, yet the risks and consequences of these actions are not adequately considered. And it removes policy-makers and military planners a step further from the realities of war-fighting experienced by military operators and civilian victims.

The danger is that actions are undertaken more readily and at the very limits of—if not outside—international law, as policy-makers struggle to respond to multiple security threats and conflicts around the world. Moreover, the remote-control approach may not even be working.

Special forces

The recent attacks in Paris, Sydney and Ottawa by individuals alleging inspiration from or direction by transnational extremist Islamist groups have raised the issue of whether and how to deploy special forces to respond to such incidents in Western cities. In an extension of the deferential preference of policy-makers and military planners for special forces in foreign operations, the counter-terrorism experience such soldiers have gained in Afghanistan and Iraq is increasingly seeing them called upon to respond to attacks at home.

The National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, a special-operations unit of the French armed forces, was deployed to track down Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo attack. In the following days the UK prime minister, David Cameron, placed special forces on high alert, and the Special Air Services reportedly re-enacted the Paris attacks in preparation for similar incidents.

The predisposition of decision-makers to deploy or stand by special forces in response to attacks in Western cities is likely to continue, given the increased threat of ‘blowback’ from Western military actions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and north Africa. Yet a military, as opposed to a law-enforcement, response only gives weight to notions that the battlefields of the Middle East and North Africa can be transposed to the streets of those Western countries involved in military operations against extremist Islamist groups overseas. It risks moving the battlefield much closer to home—at odds with the preferred remote-control approach.

The attacks in Paris highlight another failing. The three gunmen had all been on intelligence watchlists for many years. The Kouachi brothers were placed under closer surveillance by the French security services after they were determined to have received training in Yemen from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2011. But in the absence of any suspicious activity other targets were prioritised, as the authorities struggled to monitor hundreds of individuals returning to France having fought with extremist Islamist groups across the Middle East and North Africa. The ever-widening surveillance nets intelligence agencies cast as part of remote-control warfare only risk intensifying the ‘noise’ amongst which the next ‘lone-wolf’ attacker becomes increasingly difficult to identify.

Armed drones

That the deployment of two key pillars of remote-control warfare, special-operations forces and extended surveillance, is placing Western cities at risk is even more worrying in light of a third significant trend—the potential use of armed drones by violent groups. France depends heavily on nuclear power, and since last October at least 19 unidentified drone flights have been reported over French nuclear-power stations. Five were recorded over separate stations many hundreds of miles apart on the same night, which suggests co-ordination. An attack by multiple drones on a nuclear-power station could cause major damage, forcing prolonged closure for inspection and repairs.

Police in London have reported increasing numbers of unidentified drone flights around key locations, such as the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, shopping centres, sports stadiums and airports. And the Royal Canadian Mounted Police recently detailed foiled plots to use drones armed with improvised explosive devices to target the Pentagon, the US Capitol, the UK Houses of Parliament and the military headquarters in Pakistan.

In a mirror of US drone use in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a drone fitted with a remote-controlled improvised explosive device could be used against a high-value target, such as a politician—turning a key tactic of remote-control warfare back on the West. This threat was highlighted by the drone that evaded radar and crashed into the grounds of the White House on 27 January. More worryingly, in September 2013, the German Pirate Party flew a camera-equipped drone over a crowd in Dresden listening to a speech by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and crash-landed it in front of the dais. These stunts demonstrated what non-state groups could easily attempt with a weaponised drone—to say nothing of the spread of armed drones to states such as Iran, China and Russia.

Relinquishing control

If the proliferation of armed drones signifies the US and its allies losing control of a key technology, resort to private military and security companies represents the state relinquishing control over its monopoly of force. Such companies became ubiquitous in Afghanistan and Iraq, while mercenaries and volunteers from Serbia and elsewhere are fighting on both sides in Ukraine.

With more private military forces and more governments willing to deploy them, the possibility opens up of wealthy groups and individuals financing and undertaking private military endeavours as the international order descends into a state of neomedievalism. And the very distance from the state that first prompted the widespread use of mercenaries by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq is an advantage others, such as Russia, can just as easily exploit in pursuit of ‘plausible deniability’ in their own operations.

The problem of attribution to any particular state or non-state actor is also a key feature of the final element of remote-control warfare—cyber attacks. Given that justifiable responses to cyber attacks need to be based on accurate attribution, there are thus significant risks of miscalculation in cyber conflict.

President Obama labelled the Sony Pictures hack last November ‘cyber vandalism’, to emphasise that there had been no loss of life or damage to infrastructure, but treating data loss and damage to information systems as less significant is naïve in the 21st century. The latest Global Risks report from the World Economic forum places cyber attacks among the top ten most likely risks and breakdown of critical information infrastructure among the top ten in terms of impact—while listing both as the risks for which North America is the least prepared.

As with the proliferation of armed drones, the US has contributed significantly to the very threat it is now facing. It opened the floodgates with the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities discovered in June 2010, and its National Security Agency has systematically undermined encryption standards. While cyber offensives may have been considered by many decision-makers preferable to kinetic options, such methods are now being used on the West, which finds itself particularly vulnerable because of the highly-networked nature of its military, political and corporate communication systems and critical infrastructures.

New dragon?

Taken together, these trends indicate that the unrestricted use of remote-control warfare is provoking unintended consequences, with its tactics and technologies being turned back against the US and its allies by violent groups and hostile governments. And this is happening as a new dragon has emerged from the snakes with twisted irony.

What started with extremist Islamist insurgencies gaining control of territories in Africa, such as Ansar Dine in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria, has realised greater potential in the form of Islamic State (IS) claiming a ‘caliphate’ in the parts of Iraq and Syria it controls. Yet Western powers find they no longer have the heart (or resources) for full-scale military intervention in the Middle East. They have so far limited their responses to air strikes, weapons supply and intelligence-gathering, leaving the bulk of the fighting to local armies and militias.

Of course, remote-control warfare is in full effect, with special forces supplying intelligence in support of drone strikes. But while this has checked the expansion of IS, it shows little sign of defeating the group. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, boasted at the recent London summit of countries fighting IS of several thousand fighters being killed, but the containment of Islamic State owes more to Tehran than Washington (which in itself must be considered a failure of remote-control warfare by even its staunchest supporters).

Whether the US, British, Canadian and Australian special-forces teams on the ground in Iraq will one day grow into a full ground force remains to be seen but is unlikely as things currently stand. The blowback the West is facing from the failure of remote-control warfare means military and political leaders in Washington, London and elsewhere will likely be preoccupied with threats far closer to home.

Open Briefing produces monthly remote-control warfare intelligence briefings, commissioned by the Remote Control project, available free on subscription or through our website.

This article by Open Briefing’s executive director, Chris Abbott, is co-published with openDemocracy