Technology and the Future of Warfare

December 31, 2013
Image of David Kilcullen, former member of the Australian army, author and advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq.

Last week I caught a few fascinating minutes of NPR on the way into the office.  On my bucket list; at some point in time contribute monies during their fundraising efforts as I am a selfish benefactor of great content and have been riding that gravy train for years… But I digress.  Steve Inskeep was interviewing David Kilcullen, former member of the Australian army, author and advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq.  I’d read Kilcullen before and thought he had very progressive insight on modern warfare.  Kilcullen asserted that warfare is becoming more urban and that “we’re starting to see a real democratization of technology.”  I thought this concept was worth exploring.

Kilcullen talks about how technology that used to be the “preserve of nation states” is now available to anybody.  The flow of information and the availability for groups to access how-to manuals as well as more sophisticated weaponry, especially in larger, urban areas has shaken up conventional thinking on the U.S. approach to conflict.  He also cautions that major troop commitments won’t work in larger coastal cities of 20-30 million people.  In short, Kilcullen does not see a military solution to urban and regional conflicts that are based less on broad, existential reasons (the threat of Communism, radical Islam) and more on income inequality and lack of opportunity and progress.  He thinks that ‘fundamentally …social work, international assistance and diplomacy’ will be needed to address areas of unrest where US interests are at stake, where the military plays a secondary role of support.

We’re always interested in how technology drives change, whether it’s behavioral, cultural or process and business oriented.  Kilcullen touches on how prolonged conflicts are in large part supported by “war entrepreneurs” who profit from unrest.  These are timeless reasons for war, and the hand that technology has played in changing how wars are conducted can be equally attributed to how they are quelled, brought to international attention and even how protests are coordinated (see Arab Spring and social media).  We’ve also seen, especially with the recent NSA controversy, how technology is ahead of our discussion on the ambiguous line between protection and personal privacy.

Livescience.com wrote recently about seven technologies that transformed warfare.  These range from drones to nuclear warheads and provide a broader context for the evolution of lethal technologies.  I think the common denominator here is that these advancements have given us a more precise, lethal and comprehensive way to kill while dehumanizing the method.  There is a buffer between the trigger and the target, making it easier to eliminate blips on a screen than flesh and blood on the field of battle.  What interests me in Kilcullen’s interview with NPR is the notion that technologies accessibility has forced the hand of developed nations to consider non-military solutions and preventative political actions to war.  This changes the current, hawkish debate from how do we strike at this problem to how do we identify a potential problem, and can foreign policy be used to help unite divided urban populations so that running water, functional schools and working systems become the interests of all and not the leveraging tools of the few.