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Technology and the 21st Century Battlefield: Recomplicating Moral Life for the Statesman and the Soldier

Authored by Colonel Charles J. Dunlap Jr.. | January 1999

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To a French Foreign Legionnaire reeling under murderous Viet Minh bombardments at the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the notion that the advent of artillery would diminish the carnage of war would seem to be the cruelest?and most preposterous of ironies.1 Yet not uncommonly the introduction of new military technology is accompanied by enthusiastic predictions that the savagery of war will somehow be mitigated. All too often, however, these promises remain unfulfilled. Consider, for example, the widely held 17th century belief that the invention of gunpowder made war ?less horrible.?2

Such is the faith in scientific progress. In truth, technological advances bear great responsibility for the exponential growth in the sheer destructiveness of war.3 Furthermore, as the grim statistics of modern conflicts amply demonstrate,4 much of that destructiveness falls not just upon belligerent armies and their weaponry, but increasingly upon noncombatants and their property.

Today we are once again seeing renewed optimism that technology might yet provide relief from the nightmare of war. Recent scientific developments raise hopes that 21stcentury warfare?if not avoided altogether?might nevertheless be waged in a more humane manner. Much of this optimism is traceable to the Gulf War where the application of high technology seemed to minimize allied and Iraqi casualties alike. Key to this new perception of war were the widely televised images of precision-guided munitions (PGMs).5 The hopes those pictures evoked are exemplified by the comments of authors George and Meredith Friedman in their book, The Future of War:6

The accuracy of PGM[s] promises to give us a very different age; perhaps a more humane one. It is odd to speak favorably about the moral character of a weapon, but the image of a Tomahawk missile slamming precisely into its target when contrasted with the strategic bombardments of World War II does in fact contain a deep moral message and meaning. War may well be a ubiquitous part of the human condition, but war?s permanence does not necessarily mean that the slaughters of the twentieth century are permanent.7

To many, PGMs are not the only means of fulfilling the dream of more humane war. The advocates of ?information operations?8 and cyberwar9 contend that 21st century conflicts can be fought virtually bloodlessly in cyberspace. In a cyberwar scenario depicted in a 1995 Time magazine article, a United States Army officer conjured up a future crisis where a technician ensconced at a computer terminal in the United States could derail a distant aggressor ?without firing a shot? simply by manipulating computer and communications systems.10 Likewise, the proponents of a growing plethora of ?nonlethal?11 technologies argue that a range of adversaries can be engaged without deadly effect.

Collectively, most experts believe these innovations reflect an ongoing ?revolution in military affairs? (RMA). The RMA seeks to produce radically more effective?and, as the Friedmans indicate, more humane?militaries by profoundly altering their doctrine, organization, and weaponry through the widespread application of emerging microchip-based technologies, especially advanced computer and communications systems.12 Many observersbelieve that the RMA will give the United States a virtually insurmountable military advantage for the foreseeable future.13

The impetus to seek technological solutions to virtually every human dilemma?even the costly viciousness of war?is quintessentially American.14 ?Yankee ingenuity? has long sought to substitute machines for manpower.15 Unsurprisingly, therefore, the United States has enthusiastically embraced the RMA; technology has rapidly become the cornerstone of America?s military planning. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that his 1996 directive, Joint Vision (JV) 2010,16furnishes ?an operationally based template?17 as to ?how America?s armed forces will channel the vitality and innovation of our people and le'erage technological opportunities to achie'e new le'els of effecti'eness in joint warfighti ng.?18

All of this would seem to bode well for those concerned with the ethical conduct of war. But are new technologies unqualified virtues? In Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Re'enge of Unintended Consequences, author Edward Tenner reminds us that technological ?advances? have the nasty habit of surprising us with unexpected adverse qualities once their full import is experienced.19 Well-intentioned efforts can paradoxically create problems worse than the ones a specific invention was meant to solve. Even generally favorable scientific developments frequently manifest ?revenge effects? which at best ?recomplicate? a particular task or situation.

This monograph seeks to examine the moral conundrums that 21st century statesmen and soldiers may face by identifying some of the ethical issues that are generated or, as Tenner might put it, ?recomplicated? by technological advances. Doing so will necessarily involve assessing the impact of high-tech war on the existing law of armed conflict (LOAC).20 The monograph contends that there is a direct relation between ethics and LOAC. As Geoffrey

Best insists, ?[I]t must never be forgotten that the law of war, wherever it began at all, began mainly as a matter of religion and ethics . . . It began in ethics and it has kept one foot in ethics ever since.?21 As a result, this monograph will try to show where international law, which should reflect at least minimum standards of ethics and morality, needs reexamination because of the new technologies of war.

Neither ethics nor law, however, can answer all the questions that may arise on 21st century battlefields. Very often policy addresses the many gray areas that ethics and law do not necessarily enlighten?let alone resolve. Policy is critical because even where a particular course of action is technically moral and legal, there remains the important question of perceptions. Perceptions can materially affect the public support that military operations conducted by democracies require. Professors W. Michael Reisman and Chris T. Antoniou explain:

In modern popular democracies, even a limited armed conflict requires a substantial base of public support. That support can erode or even reverse itself rapidly, no matter how worthy the political objective, if people believe that the war is being conducted in an unfair, inhumane, or iniquitous way.22

In developing policy for 21st century statesmen and soldiers, leaders must deal with two related aspects of post-Vietnam and post-Gulf War America. The first is the growing aversion in both the electorate and in the uniformed ranks toward incurring virtually any friendly casualties in many military operations.23 The second, which William Boyne points out ?is unusual in history,?24 requires wars to be won with ?a minimum number of casualties inflicted on the enemy.?25The rapid end to the Gulf War following televised pictures of the so-called ?Highway of Death? illustrates the new ethical and political perceptions that can influence policymakers.

Of course, this monograph does not purport to address every, or even most, of the challenges of ethics, law, and policy produced by high-technology war. Moreover, evenwhere the issues that could recomplicate moral life for 21st century statesmen and soldiers are described, solutions are seldom supplied. Rather, if this essay succeeds, it will pose questions that, in turn, may suggest areas worthy of further study. With this in mind, let us return to PGMs, perhaps the most ready example of the unexpected conundrums of high-tech war.

Summary and Conclusions.

At this point, the reader may agree that the promise of the introduction of this essay has been fulfilled: far more questions have been raised than solutions offered. Hopefully, it is now clear that despite their many beneficial aspects, the emerging RMA technologies have great capacity for unintended consequences and revenge effects. Our examination reveals several broad themes that statesmen and soldiers may wish to address:

  • The unpredictability of an adversary?s response to high-tech attack. While U.S. intent in using PGMs or other high-tech means in a particular conflict mightbe to minimize casualties on both sides, their use may, nevertheless, drive an enemy incapable of responding in kind to resort to measures that could make war, paradoxically, more destructive or inhumane than if the high-tech weapons had not been used at all.
  • The increasing commingling of military and civilian high-tech systems. Although this dual- and multi-use trend is unlikely to change in the future, greater consideration should be given to the moral and legal implications of making legitimate targets out of systems upon which technology-dependent societies rely. Where possible, steps should be taken to ensure that essential services are preserved in the event of war. At a minimum, decision-support systems need to be developed not only to analyze the vulnerability of friendly populations but also to assess high-tech targets in hostile countries in order to assist military commanders in making an informed proportionality judgment. Such systems need to be able to evaluate secondary, reverberating effects on civilian populations.
  • The blurring of the distinction between noncombatant civilians and combatant military personnel. Technologies, along with budget-driven decisions to outsource and privatize and otherwise civilianize military functions, carry moral and legal implications. Care must be taken to ensure that a whole class of unlawful combatants is not inadvertently created. There may be utility in devising new kinds of reserve organizations for technologically skilled personnel which do not require members to conform to all the rigors of a professional military. However, such efforts must not compromise those aspects of the military regimen that develop military?s altruistic, warrior ethos which underpins moral conduct in war.
  • Information operations. Information operations (IO) and cyberwar can complicate the moral life for statesmen and soldiers in many ways, but of particular concern are the new techniques that can interfere with democratic societies. IO and cyberwar techniques are properly applied to control the aggressive behavior of nations, but they should not be permitted to destroy democratic values in the process. Moreover, the proliferation of third-party communications sources renders suspect military strategies aimed at achieving information superiority.
  • The militarization of space. Satellites and space vehicles are irrevocably integrated into modern warfare. However, this does not mean that space should become another battlefield. Rather, the United States should use its prestige as the preeminent space power to forge an international consensus that designates space a neutral area and, therefore, possibly avoid a space weapons race.
  • The lowering of the threshold of conflict. Advanced technology provides the capability to employ coercion via non- or low-lethal means in a way that greatly minimizes the immediate noncombatant losses. Because of the unpredictability of the response of those targeted, however, care must be taken to ensure that misapprehensions of the nature and implications of military means do not delude decisionmakers with visions of ?bloodlessly? compelling opponents short of violent conflict. Absent such caution we risk taking actions with the dangerous potential to spin out of control into full-scale war.
  • Organizational Culture. Vastly enhanced communications capabilities that shift more and more battlefield responsibilities to lower-levels of command must be accompanied by appropriate training to ensurethat legal and moral norms of the law of war are observed by technology-empowered junior personnel.

These are by no means all the high technology issues with potential to recomplicate moral life for 21st century statesmen and soldiers. Of course, it would be a mistake to conclude that the problems just discussed somehow warrant a retreat from infusing RMA technology into defense planning. After all, high-tech weapons ordinarily do have their intended effect?and sometimes that is the unexpected consequence. For example, military historian Martin Van Creveld observes that, ironically, ?in every region where [nuclear weapons] have been introduced, large-scale, interstate war has as good as disappeared.?163 In short, however horrific their potential, nuclear weapons have successfully performed the deterrent function that creators hoped they would, to the surprise of a myriad of naysayers. To many it is, perhaps, the ultimate unexpected?though not unintended?consequence that the advent of the nuclear age has coincided with the absence of the kind of savage global war that twice visited the world this century.

While technology can obviously deter war, it is still true that ?technology and warfare have never been far apart.?164 Clearly, statesmen and soldiers need to be concerned about procuring the technology necessary for U.S. forces to prevail in any conflict. Analysts Ronald Haycock and Keith Neilson ominously warn that ?technology has permitted the division of mankind into ruler and ruled.?165 In that regard, even America?s vaunted free-enterprise system, the engine that fuels its technological might, has its own recomplications.

Consider that American values?in this instance the commitment to full and fair competition within a capitalistic economy?might deny U.S. troops the best technology on 21st century battlefields. Author David Shukman explains: ?While the Western military struggle for a decade on average to acquire new weapons, a country with commercially available computer equipment and less rigorous democratic and accounting processes could field new systems within a few years. It is the stuff of military nightmares.?166 Although high-tech systems are touted as a means to get inside an adversary?s ?decision loop,?167 the reality is that nations unencumbered by Western-style procurement regulations may well be able to get inside our ?acquisition loop? and field newer weaponry even before the United States finishes buying already obsolete equipment.

Just as the speed of technological change creates difficulties for the procurement process, so it does for those concerned with law, ethics, and policy. President Harry Truman once remarked that he feared that ?machines were ahead of morals by some centuries.? That certainly is the case in today?s RMA environment.168 Consequently, statesmen and soldiers must accelerate their efforts to develop norms of law, ethics, and policy that honor this nation?s finest ideals while at the same time appreciating that ?technology is America?s manifest destiny.?169

This is not an easy task. Nor is the problem without historical precedent. Russell F. Weigley notes in his 1977 classic, The American Way of War, that: ?To seek refuge in technology from hard questions of strategy and policy [is] another dangerous American tendency, fostered by the pragmatic qualities of the American character and by the complexities of nuclear-age technology.? Quite obviously statesmen and soldiers must recognize technology?s potential, but they must do so with the clear understanding that it will never substitute for answering the kind of ?hard questions? of law, ethics, and policy that will continue to recomplicate moral life on 21st century battlefields.


1.Viet Minh artillerymen fired more than 130,000 rounds from over 200 heavy cannons and mortars during the siege. See J. D. Morelock, The Army Times Book of Great Land Battles, 1994, p. 262.

2. Bernard and Fawn Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb, Midland Edition, 1973, p. 70.

3.See Nathan Perry, ?Revolution in Military Affairs,? National Guard Review, Summer 1997, pp. 23, 51. (?In fact, contrary to the opinions of many analysts, there appears to be a pattern of conflict that follows each major step forward in military technology.?)

4.This is not to say that wars of previous eras were not destructive. Consider that the Thirty Years War may have caused a population decline in Europe of as much as a third. See Curt Johnson, ?Thirty Years? War,? in Brassey?s Encyclopedia of Military History and Biography, Franklin D. Margiotta, ed., 1994.

5. Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey A. Harley, ?Information, Technology, and Center of Gravity,? Naval War College Review, Winter 1997, pp. 65, 80. (?[T]he exposure of the American public and media only to high-technology combat supported an aversion to casualties and an expectation of sophistication that will not be appropriate in all future conflicts. The danger in making this particular work a blueprint for future conflicts is that it reinforces a growing perception that war can be nearly bloodless.?)

6.George and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War, 1996.

7.Ibid., p. xi.

8.There are many possible definitions of information operations but a common official definition is that used by the Air Force, that is, ?actions taken to gain, exploit, defend, or attack information and information systems.? Air Force Doctrine Document 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, September 1997, p. 44, hereinafter AFDD-1. This definition is almost identical to that once used by the Air Force to describe information warfare. See Captain Robert G. Hanseman, USAF, ?The Realities and Legalities of Information Warfare,? No. 42, A.F. L. Rev., 1997, pp. 173, 176, citing USAF Fact Sheet 95-20, November 1995.

9. Cyberwar suggests a form of warfare more holistic, strategic, and manipulative of information in its concept than the ?information operations? definition set forth in note 8 supra. AFDD-1 notes the following:

In describing information operations, it is important to differentiate between ?information in war? and ?information warfare.? The second element, information warfare, involves such diverse activities as psychological warfare, military deception, electronic combat, and both physical and cyber attack.

AFDD-1, Ibid. For an excellent cyberwar scenario, See John Arquilla, ?The Great Cyberwar of 2002,? Wired, February 1998, p. 122.

10. He visualized the foe?s phone system brought down by a computer virus, logic bombs ravaging the transportation network, false orders confusing the adversary?s military, the opponent?s television broadcasts jammed with propaganda messages, and the enemy leader?s bank account electronically zeroed out. All of this is expected to cause the adversary to give up. See Douglas Waller, ?Onward Cyber Soldiers,? Time, August 21, 1995, p. 38.

11.The Department of Defense defines these weapons as follows:

Weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or material, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment. Unlike conventional lethal weapons that destroy their targets principally through blast, penetration and fragmentation, non-lethal weapons employ means other than gross physical destruction to prevent the target from functioning. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have one, or both, of the following characteristics: a., they have relatively reversible effects on personnel or material; b., they affect objects differently within their area of influence.

Nonlethal Weapons: Terms and References, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, Colorado Springs, CO, Robert J. Bunker, ed., July 1997, p. ix, citing Department of Defense Directive 3000.3, Policy for Non-Lethal Weapons, July 9, 1996.

12. For a discussions of ?the revolution in military affairs? in the information age, see, generally, ?Select Enemy. Delete.,? The Economist, March 8, 1997, p. 21; Eliot A. Cohen, ?A Revolution in Warfare,? Foreign Affairs, March/April 1996, p. 37; Andrew F. Krepinevich, ?Cavalry to Computers: The Pattern of Military Revolutions,? The National Interest, Fall 1994, p. 30; and James R. Fitzsimonds and Jan M. Van Tol, ?Revolutions in Military Affairs,? Joint Force Quarterly, Spring, 1994, pp. 24.

13.?The Future of Warfare,? The Economist, March 8, 1997, p. 15.

14. See Robert N. Ellithorpe, ?Warfare in Transition? American Military Culture Prepares for the Information Age,? a presentation for the Biennial International Conference of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, Baltimore, MD, October 24-26, 1997, p. 18, ?American military culture historically emphasized scientific

approaches to warfare to the point of holding an almost mystical belief in the power of technology to solve the challenges of war,? unpublished paper on file with author.

15.See, generally, Colin S. Gray, ?U.S. Strategic Culture: Implications for Defense Technology? in Defense Technology, No. 31, Asa A. Clark IV and John F. Lilley, eds., 1989. Gray quotes George S. Patton, Jr:

The Americans, as a race, are the foremost mechanics of the world. America, as a nation, has the greatest ability for the mass production of machines. It therefore behooves us to devise methods of war which exploit our inherent superiority. We must fight the war by machines on the ground, and in the air, to the maximum of our ability . . . .

!bid., citing George S. Patton, Jr., War as ! Knew !t, No. 345, 1947; Bantam reprint, 1980.

16.Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision 2010, 1996 [hereinafter referred to as JV 2010].

17.General John M. Shalikashvili, !bid., p. ii.

18.!bid., p. 1.

19. Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, 1996.

20. LOAC might be described as follows:

LOAC is a body of law that derives from several international treaties, specifically, the Hague and Geneva Conventions, as well as customary international law, law created by the custom and practice of civilized warring states, which is binding on all nations. It applies to all armed conflicts between states, thus, civil wars or battles with terrorist groups are not covered. Hague Law is concerned mainly with the means and methods of warfare, while Geneva Law is concerned with protecting persons involved in conflicts, such as POWs, the wounded, and civilians.

Hanseman, supra note 8, p. 189.

21. Geoffrey Best, Law and War Since 1945, 1994, p. 289.

22. W. Michael Reisman and Chris T. Antoniou, The Laws of War, 1994, p. xxiv, emphasis added.

23. See note 5, supra. This trend has led Edward Luttwak to argue that an even greater investment in technology is required because modern democracies simply cannot tolerate casualties. See Edward Luttwak, ?Post-Heroic Armies,? Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996, p. 33.

24.Walter J. Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the Air Force 1947-1997, 1997, p. 7.

25. Ibid.

163. Martin Van Creveld, ?Technology and World War II,? in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, No. 304, Charles Townsend, ed., 1997, emphasis in original.

164. Ronald Haycock and Keith Neilson, Men, Machines, and War, 1988, p. xi.

165. Ibid., pp. xii.

166. See Shukman, supra note 89, pp. 8. See also Michael Loescher, ?New Approaches to DoD Information-Systems Acquisition? in Cyberwar: Security, Strategy and Conflict in the Information Age, Alan D. Campen, et. al., ed., 1996, p. 127, ?In a world in which state-of-the-art is off-the-shelf, industry, and potentially our foes, can obtain better information systems (IS) technology cheaper and faster than DoD because our current acquisition system buys computers in the same way we buy bullets.?; and Jeffery R. Barnett, Future War, 1996, p. 17, stressing the need to compress the procurement time for information technologies.

167. See, for example, ?The Software Revolution; The Information Advantage,? The Economist, June 10, 1995, p. 11, discussing how information technology will allow a combatant to get through the observation, orientation, decision, and action [OODA] loop faster and thus maintain the initiative.

168. See also Arsenio T. Gumahad II, ?The Profession of Arms in the Information Age,? Joint Force Quarterly, Spring 1997, pp. 14-15. ?Consideration of moral and legal issues raised by information warfare has not advanced as quickly as technology and doctrine.?

169. Stefan Possony and Jerry Pournelle, The Strategy of Technology, 1970, p. xxxi, as quoted in Chris Hables Gray, Postmodern War, 1997, p. 172.