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‘Remote control war’ won’t make conflict less bloody  

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World leaders say that unmanned weapons can change the way wars are fought. But Sam Ord argues that new technology won’t make conflict less destructive
Issue 2835
drone warfare war

More unmanned weapons will only lead to more bloodshed (Picture: Jonathan Cutrer)

Every new war sees developments and technological advancements that our rulers claim will transform how they are fought. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is no exception. The invasion has seen an increased use of drones and other hi-tech, unmanned weaponry. 

It will be a big deal for some that the first ever recorded battle between two remote controlled drones took place over Ukraine. But does this mean that the future of war will be unmanned aircraft battling each other controlled by people with joysticks in a faraway military bunker?

Well, that’s what those in power would like ordinary people to think.  They claim that using unmanned weaponry will cut down on the deaths and injuries of soldiers and even civilians during war. 

But in reality unmanned weapons are just another way to kill more humans.  In May 2013 former US president Barack Obama said that drone strikes would be conducted only against those who were a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people”.  He added that he was “near certainty” that there would be no civilian casualties if they were used. 

But while Obama might have been hesitant to send troops to fight his wars, he was more than happy to sign off on unmanned drone strikes that killed innocent civilians from Yemen to PakistanWarmongers hope that if you take the human element out of war, there is less risk of desertion or mutiny from soldiers themselves. 

An armed drone won’t suffer from low morale or PTSD. They will kill without discrimination because that is what it has been programmed to do. Of course, a human will be needed to control, develop and fix drones.  And, even being behind a screen can’t shield soldiers entirely from the horrors of war. 

A study conducted in 2014 found that there was “really no substantive differences” between soldiers that operated drones and other military personnel.  And so the prospect of cutting out all human intervention in warfare is so appealing to our rulers that technology that could replace even drone operators is developing fast.

But despite all attempts to turn wars into exchanges of computer code, they are still primarily fought by soldiers on the frontline spraying bullets.  This is reflected in the growing death count in Ukraine. Some 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded there, and similar numbers of Ukrainian soldiers have suffered the same fate, according to a United States army general.

The most important fighting now in Ukraine involves thousands of soldiers sheltering in freezing trenches amid bullets and artillery shells. The Guardian newspaper reported on 28 November, “The fighting in the Bakhmut sector has descended into trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War”.

It’s more like the carnage of Verdun than some computer game. The obscene cost of the new death technology should be another spur to resistance to war. The Turkish drone, Bayraktar TB-2 used by Ukrainian forces, costs around £4.1 million each. 

To take it down requires a hi-tech, human operated surface to air missile system such as the Russian S-500, which costs £492 million.  While technological warfare might be preferable to some rulers, using real human soldiers is more cost‑effective. 

The development of new technology that endeavours to cut human activity out of war is not a step towards more “just wars” or wars that result in fewer casualties. 

From the creation of bombs dropped from planes in the First World War to intercontinental ballistic missiles, drones are just the latest murderous development. All of this is part of the same process of brutal imperialist competition that leads to the death of people and the planet.  

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