April 01, 2012

Drones are not information warfare

Emblem of the Air Force Information Operations...
Emblem of the Air Force Information Operations Center (AFIOC; formerly the Air Force Information Warfare Center, AFIWC) of 8th Air Force of the United States Air Force (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

01 Sunday Apr 2012  Posted by Tim Stevens

This is a quick response to some recent articles that make the unusual claim that drones are examples of information warfare. I’m here to explain why this is misleading and potentially counter-productive.
A short while ago, Mariarosaria Taddeo published an article, Information Warfare: A Philosophical Perspective, in the journal Philosophy & Technology. I mentioned it here briefly but it got a full write-up and author interview with Ross Andersen of The Atlantic last week. In an item titled, Cyber and drone attacks may change warfare more than the machine gun, Andersen and Taddeo discuss the changing nature of warfare and the ethical implications of new technologies such as drones and cyber warfare. Some of these issues are echoed in an op-ed by John Naughton, Cyberwarfare takes Heidegger’s ideas to their logical end, published in the last couple of hours and which will appear in tomorrow’s print edition of The Observer.
Based on Taddeo’s original article, both Andersen and Naughton’s pieces are predicated on an understanding of information warfare (IW) as warfare characterised by and pursued through the use of information technologies. They, like Taddeo, can then make the case that because drones/UAVs can be understood as information technologies, drones are vectors or agents of IW. All three authors make the entirely reasonable argument that things like drones raise important ethical questions, particularly as their deployment seems to be accelerating and is increasingly politically popular.

I have no problems with the general thrust of the ethical arguments at all. In fact, I agree. I also agree that there is a shift towards the ‘informationisation’ of warfare in ways Taddeo draws attention to in her original article, particularly as ‘bloodless’ solutions are sought to problems of human conflict. Drones might be a part of this (although they frequently undertake pretty sanguinary actions, it seems to me), as might cyber warfare. No, I don’t really have a problem with these aspects, but what I do think problematic is there’s something misleading about the term ‘information warfare’ that’s not being addressed in these pieces. As a result, drones are being lumped in with IW, which may in itself have negative implications for the ethics of their use.
The essential problem is that this is either a new definition of information warfare, or the exhumation of an old one. Information technologies have always been used in war and as far as I’m aware, IW as a distinct form of war was never contingent on information technologies per se. Rather, it has been, as Martin Libicki suggests, ‘the use of information to attack information’, in which, ‘as the purpose of information is to make better decisions, the purpose of information warfare must therefore be to confound the making of these decisions, including those made by machines’. Information technologies are secondary to the practice of IW, rather than a precondition for its existence as Taddeo et al claim.
Second, even the US Department of Defense stopped using the term information warfare some time around 2006. It was removed from joint Information Operations doctrine around this time, probably because it had to ceased to refer to anything discrete and thereby lost clarity and utility. The propaganda elements of IW went to ‘influence operations’ (IO), some technical aspects went to ‘computer network operations’ (CNO), and so on. The term died because it simply wasn’t possible to call everything that involved ICTs – which was everything – ‘information warfare’. What’s IW if everything’s IW?
My third observation stems from this. Just because drones are heavily reliant on very sophisticated information technologies – sometimes with the human more or less taken out of the loop – does not, a priori, make them agents of IW. They are weapons, surveillance, intelligence systems, whatever, but none of these makes drones IW either. They could indeed perform some of the functions of IW, as do many other military systems, but to claim that drones are inherently IW is, I’m afraid, illogical. It’s also potentially dangerous in that drones should principally be viewed as weapons systems that kill and maim, and as surveillance systems that facilitate these actions.
My final point is that it’s going to be quite difficult to engage with governments – read, the US, in the context of the articles mentioned above – if IW is the ground on which debates are joined. The US military likes people to speak its language and it doesn’t use this term any more. That, I’m afraid, really counts against ethicists and other scholars of modern warfare. Don’t construe this as me saying in any imperative sense that scholars must speak the language of the military in order to be effective, but it is me suggesting that there’s already enough misunderstanding between the two parties that the possible shortcomings of this particular use of IW should, at the very least, be recognised and addressed.
I welcome the airing this issue is getting in public and behind the academic paywall. I do wonder at the terminology, however, and the ways in which this particular issue is conceived. My comments are offered in this spirit, and form the backbone of my response to Taddeo’s thought-provoking article, which has itself been accepted for publication in Philosophy & Technology (more on that at a later date). There’s a lot more than can be said about this issue, of course, and one of the many things Taddeo, Andersen and Naughton are all right about is that this one’s not going to go away.
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