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One of the most significant trends in international affairs is the move towards security by remote control. While this is commonly seen as focusing on the use of unmanned platforms, it goes well beyond these systems to encompass a wider change in strategy and posture. It has its origins in the problems that arose at the outset of the ‘war on terror’ and while it has the potential to shape future conflicts, there are aspects that suggest that it is dangerous to see it as a panacea.


This is an edited version of Paul Rogers’ ‘Remote Control – a New Way of War’. The full version originally written for the ISN was published on 13 December 2012.

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University in the UK. He is global security consultant to Oxford Research Group, writes regularly for openDemocracy and is closely associated with the Remote Control Project.

Political Origins

When President George W. Bush formed his first administration in 2001, two of the key appointments were Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense and Paul Wolfowitz as his Deputy. Both were convinced of the need for the United States to re-assert its international leadership without the need for large overseas deployments. This approach, commonly known as “war lite” was based on the view that the US military superiority meant there wouldn’t be a need for large scale deployment of troops, advocating instead for more emphasis on airborne stand-off weapons, special forces and expeditionary naval forces.

Power is increasingly defined, not by mass or size, but by mobility and swiftness. Influence is measured in information, safety is gained in stealth, and force is projected on the long arc of precision-guided weapons.

George W. Bush speaking at The Citadel, South Carolina in 1999 outlining his national security policy.


In the aftermath of 9/11, although the Bush Administration reacted forcibly to the threat posed by terrorism, removing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and declaring an international ‘war on terror’, it nonetheless followed Rumsfeld’s policy; focusing on intensive use of air power and special forces combined with the re-arming of the Northern Alliance of warlords. While there were some tens of thousands of ground troops involved, the numbers were far lower than in 1991. However, the evolution of the ‘war on terror’ proved to be very different to what had been anticipated. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, bitter insurgencies developed that led to large numbers of foreign troops being deployed to counter them. While most of the foreign forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the total cost of the wars in the two countries – with additional attacks ordered against al-Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen – will be somewhere in the order of $4 trillion. In the United States and many Western countries, the wars became markedly unpopular, and one of the effects of the outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq was for a change in outlook in terms of using military forces to maintain international security.

Technological origins

In parallel with these problems there had emerged some major developments in military technology, the most significant being the production of armed drones. These had been developed out of the experience gained with remotely operated reconnaissance vehicles that had been available for several decades. The specific issue of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) that could be armed with precision-guided missiles such as the Hellfire was still new until a decade ago. It was the development of Predator and Reaper UCAVs – not to mention their Israeli equivalents – that was to have a profound impact.

The United States has found armed UCAVs to be particularly useful in targeting al-Qaeda and other insurgents in North West Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. They are deployed both by the military and the CIA and have found favour because of their precision and the absence of risk to operatives. The use of armed UCAVs has increasingly been supported by other elements of remote warfare, neither of them new but each being enhanced. One is the much more widespread use of special Forces that often conduct operations with a minimum of publicity. The other element involves a much greater use of private military and security companies (PMSCs), with the United States currently employing 20,000 private personnel in Afghanistan. In keeping with special sorces, PMSCs tend to act with a minimum of publicity. A further development is the growth in numbers of defense intelligence agents, with the Pentagon recently announcing plans for a near-doubling of agents operating overseas. Put together, the combination of armed UCAVs, special forces and PMSCs amounts to a relatively low-profile form of warfare that is often regarded as a cheaper and less accountable means of maintaining security.

A welcome paradigm?

This new form of warfare, in particular the use of UCAVs, is controversial for several reasons. One is the questionable legality of what may amount to targeted assassinations and a second is the quality of intelligence available to determine the actual targets. For example, there have been many instances of civilians being killed, especially when village compounds have been hit in Pakistan. Third is the ease with which UCAVs can be operated without risking the lives of pilots, making their early use in a conflict particularly attractive. Finally, in Pakistan the civilian casualties and the perceived infringement of sovereignty have resulted in bitter public opposition to their use and a distinct increase in anti-American attitudes.

Nevertheless, the trend towards remote warfare continues, and other countries are moving rapidly to develop appropriate systems, with Russia, China and Iran all moving away from aircraft development towards developing unmanned vehicles. Iran is illustrative of how UCAVs can be easily passed on to sub-state paramilitary groups. In October 2012, Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon, possibly with Iranian assistance, launched a UCAV in the south of the country. After flying the UCAV down the eastern Mediterranean, it was re-directed into southern Israel where it was eventually intercepted by the Israeli Air Force. This was the deepest penetration of Israeli air space by a UCAV launched by Hezbollah and has caused concern within the Israeli Defence Forces as a disturbing indicator of potential future trends.

In the short term, there is a common view in the United States, Britain and France that remote control warfare is a significant and welcome development after a decade of considerable difficulty associated with the ‘war on terror’. A longer view suggests otherwise as more states recognize the advantages of such an approach and move to adopt elements of it. There are currently no arms control processes underway for handling the new weapons systems, virtually nothing in the way of controlling Special Forces and little interest in aggressively monitoring or regulating the use of private military and security companies. For now, the process is one of expansion, but the recent Israeli experience should serve as a warning that remote warfare may turn out to have elements of particular interest to sub-state and paramilitary movements, enhancing asymmetric warfare capabilities in unexpected and potentially dangerous directions.

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University in the UK. He is global security consultant to Oxford Research Group, writes regularly for openDemocracy and is closely associated with the Remote Control Project.

Image: Creative Commons, Source: expertinfantry on flickr