Global Affairs April 27, 2023 by

Adithyan Nair

Warfare technologies and international crimes

Warfare technologies and international crimes

The evolution of warfare technology is a concept that mankind has been witnessing for centuries. From the invention of swords and spears to the modern-day AK 47s and pistols, progression of warfare technologies has become a competition amongst states as well as the private sector with warfare technology industry being a billion-dollar industry. When talking about the history of modern-day warfare, one of the key developments that shaped the way modern wars are fought was the invention of gunpowder. Later, the invention of machine guns in the 1800s up until the Second World War, gave rise to modern warfare machinery like aircraft, tanks and mechanized warfare. This was when creativity was high in demand for strategists to ensure the development of warfare technologies.

The end of the Second World War gave rise to the most dangerous weapon known to mankind, the nuclear weapon. The transition period from the Second World War to Cold War also witnessed a rise in the importance of soft power and intelligence in all spheres of International Relations. This leads to up the current day scenario where lines between combatant and non-combatant are blurred. Terrorism, lone-wolf attacks, and insurgency is the number one problem of mankind. Intelligence is the biggest advantage for all nation’s defense forces.

With the rise of warfare technologies that can harm a mass population within a small time frame, scholars and countries started coming together to classify and prohibit some weapons calling them ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. Weapons of mass destruction are nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological, or any other weapons that can kill and bring significant harm to numerous humans or cause great damage to human-made structures. Examples of Weapons of Mass Destruction are most evident in the second half of the 1900s. In the 1950, the United Kingdom invented a nerve gas called the VX gas. The effects of the gas is reportedly worse than Sarine and has said to be used in chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Salted bombs are another example of weapons of mass destruction but no country publicly admits to having built one. Being around since the Cold War, salted bomb is a special nuke achieved by adding a little bit of gold, cobalt, or a heavy metal tantalum in the mix.

Now after the First and Second World War, restricting the use of weapons of mass destruction was obvious for political leaders and civilians.  This is when countries came together to form the international law that we currently know of that prohibit the use of such weapons. The Rome statue of the International Criminal Court clearly defines the legality when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. There are articles stated in the Rome Statute that clear prohibits torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments employing poison or poisoned weapons, employing asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and so on.

However, the Rome Statute and the international judicial system as a whole fail to take into account the latest technological advancements that the world has witnessed. Invention of drones and Artificial intelligence has changed the game completely when it comes to how modern wars are fought. But can law be easily modified to include new technological innovations that can harm mankind? Let’s observe how international law has adapted to new warfare technologies in the past.

One of the first treaties was the prohibition of poison or poisoned arms in the Hague in 1899. This was followed by Prohibition of exploding bullets (1868) and expanding bullets (1899), Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention in 1972  and in 1993 the establishment of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Prohibition of anti-personnel mines (1997) and cluster munitions (2008) and the prohibition of the use of weapons which have been deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects, including blinding laser weapons (1998). So International law has protected in war in the past when new warfare technologies developed. Currently with the rise of the use of drones and artificial intelligence in modern warfare, once again the world faces a potential crisis that needs to be addressed in the International Law.

When talking about latest advancements in the warfare industry, three things come to mind. First one is Cyber warfare. The consequences of Cyber-attacks are often addressed by political leaders, humanitarians and scholars. Let’s first talk about the pros of Cyber warfare.

One of the areas where Cyber ware technology triumphs is at its ability to be selective and control the consequences. Needlessly attacking a nation’s critical infrastructures can be avoided through the use of cyber warfare. Instead cyber attack forces on a countries economy to paralyze civilian life, weaken the state through loss of economic productivity and create public panic. The second advantage of cyber attack is that it can be executed in a painless form by avoiding the need of troops to engage in direct combat and instead attacking by a press of a button. The third reason is that it is cost effective. Instead of countries spending millions of dollars on advanced military artillery, countries can just spend a few thousand dollars on creating cyber warfare software to perform a DDos attack.

Although there are certain advantages associated with the use of cyber warfare technology, there are also some threats that needs to be addressed. During times of war, hospitals and health clinics that treat the wounded civilians as well as peacekeepers and journalists can be negatively affected. Healthcare systems are increasingly digitalized and connected but often unprotected, so they are easily vulnerable to cyber-attacks.  Humanitarian programs are also affected due to cyber-attacks. Cyber-attacks break the digitalized communication between humanitarian staff and civilians in war zones.

These factors make it necessary for the inclusion of specific rules and regulations in the Rome statute in order to limit the casualties during war.

Next technological advancement in the weapons industry is the introduction of drones. The emergence of new technologies and weapons always throw people into a state of worry wondering if the new weapons and technologies are covered by law or not. Contrary to what people may believe, the opposite is true. Existing international humanitarian law always applies to new weapons and technologies in warfare. Although this may be the case, some weapons do challenge the transparency of existing law and whether it addresses the specific challenges that new technologies bring. (Reference this). The usage of drones is an example of such a challenge.

The key change that led to the introduction of drones and automated weaponry is the introduction of artificial intelligence.

Artificially intelligence has paved way for automated weapons that does not even require human presence along with the weapons. Humanity plays a huge role in determining targets while pulling the trigger to conduct an execution, but fully autonomous weapons completely remove that. Artificial intelligence cannot easily learn how to evaluate complex situation and feel emotions that is necessary in a war zone. An excellent example of this particular shortcoming of Artificial intelligence is provided by the Director of the Technology and National Security Program at Center for a New American Security, Paul Scharre. Scharre was stationed in Afghanistan in an Army Ranger sniper team. He states that during his time, there was an incident where a little girl approached them and circled around them being observant and informing the Taliban fighters of Scharre’s teams’ position. While Scharre states that neither him or his fellow teammates would not shoot the little girl even if she was working as a scout for the Taliban, he states that a robot would recognize the girl as a combatant and would have fired without taking into account the age and innocence of the little girl. This goes to prove that the usage of artificial intelligence in war in the form of killer robots is something that needs to be reevaluated. 

The use of cyber warfare and advanced technology in warfare is also unfair when it comes to war between two states.

When a country produces and deploys advanced weaponry which the other state doesn’t have then it is not really a fair war. This can be observed when the British had guns against India which lead to colonization. Therefore, this factor should also be taken into consideration while states deploy new advanced weapons technology in a battlefield. A modern-day example can be witnessed between Iran and the United States in 2010. When United States conducted a series of cyber attacks on Iran, Iran was helpless due to its lack of technological advancement. This also created an urgency in Iran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.

Therefore, the limitation of the usage of cyber warfare, drones and AI should be clearly incorporated in the International Law. Experts have come up with a manual to address this growth in cyberwarfare called the Tallinn manual.

Technically, the Tallinn manual is a non-binding document curated by experts. However, this manual has the potential to instigate further discussion among states on issues regarding Cyber warfare. However, the International Committee of Red Cross has made it clear that international humanitarian law only applies to cyber-attacks which causes armed conflict or giving rise to armed conflict in and of themselves.

The Tallinn Manual provides us with a broader understanding of the dichotomy of international and non-international armed conflicts. It also notes that cyber operations solely may establish armed conflicts depending on the situation especially about the destructive effectives of cyber-attacks. The Tallinn Manual defines cyber-attacks as cyber operations irrespective of it as offensive or defensive purposes, which causes injury or death to any humans or cause any significant infrastructural damage. The group of experts who laid the foundation work of the Tallinn has agreed that the list of damages includes not just physical damage, but also digital damage where it results in loss of functionality of an object. According to the International Committee of Red Cross, if an object is damaged then it does not matter if the damage is caused by locomotive means or through a cyber operation. This is important because if this is not addressed then International Humanitarian Law will not cover cyber operations that attack a civilian network and makes it dysfunctional (example- WIFI networks).

The International Committee of Red Cross was an observer to the discussions that lead to the formation of the Tallinn Manual. Their presence as an observer was key to ensuring that the existing International Humanitarian Law is covered in the Tallinn Manual. Although the ICRC agrees on most of the rules set forward by the Tallinn Manual, there are some exceptions. For example, the rule that recalls the prohibition of belligerent reprisals against a number of specially protected persons and objects does not include cultural property, opposing to the finding of the ICRC’s study on customary International Humanitarian Law.

All in all, as weapons technology progresses, the crucial factor is not to determine if said technology is good or bad but to consider the characteristics of the weapon, circumstances of its use and its compatibility with international law. Moreover, as the world becomes more digital, the incorporation of evolving cyberwarfare technology is necessary to address the growing threat to mankind. We also need to address the gap between states when it comes to weapons technology advancement. While one state may possess automated drones to do its bidding, the other might have no choice but to send its troops onto the field. This will make the war unfair and will favor the technologically advanced country considering that their troops sustain minimal damage motivating them to annihilate the opposing state without any hesitation. Therefore, filling the gap between technologically developed and technologically underdeveloped countries is also necessary while incorporating the evolution of modern warfare technologies into exiting international law.

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About the author

Adithyan Nair

Adithyan Nair