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Securing change: Recommendations for the British government regarding remote-control warfare

by Chris Abbott, Scott Hickie, Steve Hathorn and Raphaël Zaffran

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The United States has led the way in developing a new way of conceptualising and executing war.

The emphasis now is on effecting warfare at a distance by 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 this ‘remote-control warfare’ approach.

Within this, policymakers and military planners are promoting the tactics and technologies judged to have worked during the war on terror and associated conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. As such, the five key aspects of remote-control warfare are: special-operations forces; private military and security companies; unmanned vehicles and autonomous weapons systems; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and cyber warfare.

Since April 2014, Open Briefing has produced a series of monthly intelligence briefings on remote-control warfare. These briefings are commissioned by the Remote Control project, which was initiated by the Network for Social Change and is hosted by Oxford Research Group. Every six months, Open Briefing undertakes a more in-depth assessment of trends in remote-control warfare. This report presents the findings from the second such review, and focuses on the issues of most significance to the United Kingdom, though they affect many other states too.

In the United Kingdom, the election of a Conservative-majority government in the May 2015 general election is unlikely to result in any significant departure from this approach. In fact, increased reliance on the tactics of remote-control warfare is likely as budget savings are made across Whitehall and the government responds to multiple security threats and conflicts around the world.

However, the assessment of recent trends contained in this report makes it increasingly clear that remote-control warfare has its limits. The report outlines some of the key unforeseen consequences from the use of remote-control warfare, including the transposition of Middle Eastern battlefields to Western cities through the deployment of special forces to respond to terrorist incidents at home, the enabling of adversaries to develop sophisticated cyber offensive capabilities through reverse engineering the cyber weapons deployed against them, and the risks presented by the terrorist use of weaponised civilian drones to attack critical national infrastructure or VIPs.

From the deployment of larger and more autonomous armed drones, to the development of ever more sophisticated cyber defence and offensive capabilities, this report also outlines the ways in which states are pursuing various ‘arms races’ in an attempt to maintain the strategic edge over their adversaries.

In light of these and the other trends discussed, this report makes the following 31 specific recommendations for the new British government.

In relation to special forces, the British government should:

  1. Clearly articulate the strategic objectives that are to be achieved by any increase in the deployment of special forces to Iraq.
  2. Implement regular reporting to parliament on special forces deployments, budget allocation and the achievement of strategic goals.
  3. Improve the training, equipment and arsenals of police firearms units rather than increasingly diverting special forces to counter-terrorism at home.
  4. Encourage information-sharing protocols between military and law enforcement units.
  5. Develop clear guidelines on the training and support of local military forces that take into account the human rights standards of partners.
  6. Evaluate the geographic deployment of special forces, and ensure major conflicts are not drawing disproportionate special forces resources at the expense of partnerships and engagements in other regions.

In relation to private military and security companies, the British government should:

  1. Develop national legislation specific to private military and security companies that better takes into account the peculiar nature of those companies, particularly those operating in conflict zones.
  2. Ensure that the development of appropriate prosecution processes is put on the PMSC oversight agenda to the same extent as the strengthening of international regulatory frameworks.
  3. Raise awareness of the provisions of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers (ICoC) and place significant emphasis on the effective monitoring of companies’ compliance with the ICoC.
  4. Strengthen international collaboration through bodies such as the ICoC Association and support the association’s efforts towards the standardised and international regulation of private military and security companies.
  5. Systematically vet the floating armouries it authorises British private military and security companies to use and make inventories of their arsenals publicly available.
  6. Lobby concerned states and private maritime security companies to bring the issue of floating armouries into regulatory tools, such as ICoC, making it central to certification processes and monitoring mechanisms.

In relation to unmanned vehicles and autonomous weapons systems, the British government should:

  1. Actively support the creation of an effective international control regime for unmanned combat air vehicles and other armed drones.
  2. Facilitate the creation of a treaty-based international body tasked with prohibiting the export of weapons-capable drones to countries subject to UN Security Council sanctions or with poor human rights records.
  3. Make funding available for the purchase of counter-drone systems to provide protection for high-value target sites and critical national infrastructure.
  4. Make funding for early warning and drone countermeasures available to police forces and specialist units for the purchase of radio detectors and frequency jammers.
  5. Work with European partners to bring in EU-wide licencing and registration for all civilian drones.
  6. Consider initiating a national moratorium on the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems in order to allow international experts to more fully consider the practical and ethical questions raised by such systems.
  7. Promote international agreements of assured transparency under which countries provide data demonstrating that any lethal autonomous weapons systems in front line service possess a degree of accuracy that ensures a very high probability of correctly assessing the threat before responding.
  8. Determine whether existing international law needs amending to clearly identify the level of command that would be liable should autonomous systems fail and innocent bystanders are injured or killed.

In relation to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the British government should:

  1. Move away from the broad approach of attempting to counter all extremism and towards concentrating finite resources on tackling those at highest risk of adopting violent approaches.
  2. Replace active intervention for lower-risk individuals and implement a broad campaign to undermine jihadist propaganda by promoting effective non-violent protest and campaign skills as alternatives to violence.
  3. Consider adopting a full-time cyber capability that can utilise the data-rich environment from the thousands of malicious attacks against the government’s secure internet and proactively disrupt the attackers’ activities.
  4. Hold a comprehensive debate over the costs and benefits of bulk surveillance and wholesale intelligence gathering and implement fundamental reforms to those operations.
  5. Launch an honest campaign to improve transparency in surveillance operations, explaining to the public as much as is possible (while maintaining operational security) the true intelligence gathering process.

In relation to cyber warfare, the British government should:

  1. Actively support NATO to become a coherent cyber community that facilitates intelligence sharing, defence training and incident response.
  2. Take steps to ensure that the intelligence and counter-terrorism agendas of the Five Eyes network do not disproportionately shape cyber security policy and detract from norm-building opportunities.
  3. Participate in the agreement between the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to build GCC cyber security defences against external state and non-state threat actors by sharing UK institutional experience from the Cyber-Security Information Sharing Partnership (CISP) with GCC members.
  4. Develop targeted bilateral initiatives through which to share cyber security expertise and threat intelligence with trusted partners in the Middle East, including Jordan and Israel.
  5. Encourage the inclusion of cyber weapon proliferation in the terms of reference for the next House of Commons Defence Committee review into defence and cyber security.
  6. Use the forthcoming National Security Strategy update to send clear signals to international partners on options to manage the proliferation of cyber weapons and flag the prioritisation of norm development.

What is ultimately needed is a comprehensive rethink of defence and security strategy and a move away from remote-control warfare towards more enduring, accountable and effective responses to today’s multiple security threats. While the planned Strategic Defence and Security Review and update of the National Security Strategy both present ideal opportunities for the United Kingdom to do this, previous strategy reviews have failed to live up to expectations in this regard.

The recommendations presented in this report will allow the British government to mitigate some of the pitfalls of the current strategy. The hope is that innovators within cabinet, parliament and the Ministry of Defence will take them up and leave their mark through the promotion of lasting stability and security in the United Kingdom and more globally.

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