New wars, new technology

Sunday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Conservatory, Barbican War and peace

The rise of drones as a new kind of weapon has led many commentators to ask whether warfare has fundamentally changed. French academic and author Gregoire Chamayou argues that drones undermine the idea of a discrete battlefield and are considered ‘precise’ even though no explosive device could ever really be so. More fundamentally, they disconnect the attacker from the possibility of death, making the reality of killing people appear like playing a video game. Similar themes are explored in the culture, for example the recent Hollywood movie Good Kill. Lead actor Ethan Hawke has remarked that the drone operators’ ‘lives aren’t on the line and yet they’re making mortal decisions’.

Other new developments create different quandaries, from ISIS manipulations of social media to North Korea’s cyber-attack on Sony. The prevailing view of Russia in Ukraine is that it has begun a new kind of ‘hybrid’ warfare – a mix of propaganda, intelligence and irregular operations. Yet war also appears closer to normal life, too. We fear ‘blowback’ from the Middle East coming to our shores, such as the 7/7 bombings in London 10 years ago, and worry about young people going off to join ISIS.

But do these developments represent a break from the past or a continuation of longstanding trends? War has never stood still, and technology has always been a driving force in changing the nature of warfare. Is the drone operator sitting in America in practical terms really more disconnected from the fight than the pilot of a fast jet fighter who bombs opponents who have no weaponry capable of attacking him? Even as far back as the first Gulf War, American pilots could describe attacking Iraqi targets as a ‘turkey shoot’. The propaganda war may have moved online, but is the use of social media to recruit supporters and demoralise the enemy just an updated version of the propaganda tactics of the past? Nor is new technology necessary to fight modern wars; many of today’s insurgencies, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, use old-fashioned and crude technologies to brutal effect.

So, in what sense is war really changing? Western powers may have force on their side but often seen to be losing the battle of hearts and minds, undermining their own societies. Will old-fashioned material superiority always prevail in the long run or can new technology tip the balance of power towards the West’s new enemies?

Listen to the debate

Justin Bronk
research analyst, military sciences, RUSI; assistant editor, RUSI Defence Systems online journal

Christopher Coker
professor of international relations, LSE; books include Future War and Can War Be Eliminated?

Chris Woods
director,; author, Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars

James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, London South Bank University

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Produced by
James Woudhuysen visiting professor, London South Bank University
Recommended readings
The moral cowardice of the drone debate

Who cares if killing those jihadis was legal? The question is: was it right?

Luke Gittos, spiked, September 2015

Book Review: Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War

In his latest book, Christopher Coker offers a compelling and erudite engagement with the momentous transformative effects that a seemingly ever-accelerating influx of technoscientific innovations is having on the practice and experience of war and, by extension, on humanity itself.

Antoine Bousquet, Global Policy, 24 April 2015

Weapons of World War III: How new technology will affect the next great conflict

Two authors argue that the two new domains of war will be space and cyberspace.

Ben Aglaze, ExtremeTech, 19 March 2015

Drone Theory by Grégoire Chamayou review – a provocative investigation

Drone attacks have become a hallmark of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the talk of ‘precision’ is deeply problematic.

Jonathan Derbyshire, Guardian, 21 January 2015


A collaborative, not-for-profit transparency project aimed both at tracking and archiving the international air war against Islamic State, in both Iraq and Syria.

Chris Woods and the Airwars project team,

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