Understanding the lab analysis of the Salisbury poisoning: where the technical meets the political- Talk, Bath 11th May

The recent Salisbury poisoning sets the scene for an interesting case study of the tensions between needs for confidentiality and needs for transparency in international investigations

Following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in early March, the UK Government asked the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to confirm its identification of the agent, commonly known as a “Novichok”. The OPCW is the body established by the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty with the aim of achieving a chemical-weapon-free world.

OPCW inspectors visited the UK and took a number of samples from relevant locations and from individuals affected by the poison. These were then dispatched by the OPCW laboratory to a number of accredited laboratories around the world. Broader political debates about the OPCW would quickly bleed into the discussion and presentation of Laboratory findings. For example, one senior Russian diplomat would even erroneously claim that another toxin had been found in the OPCW samples, and that this had not been reported. This came in the context of a number of debates about the source of the agent which were framed in technical terms.

In this seminar, Richard Guthrie will provide an overview of the technical issues involved in the methods used by the OPCW for sampling and analysis in investigations of alleged use of chemical weapons. Brett Edwards will then discuss the ‘narrative-wars’ which have surrounded these technical processes.

Dr Richard Guthrie has worked in and with the non-governmental, governmental and inter-governmental sectors, mostly looking at technology control and innovation issues that relate to materials and technologies that can have hostile as well as peaceful uses. He is Coordinating Editor of CBW Events, a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare (CBW) and its prevention are developed.

Dr Brett Edwards is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. He works on a number of projects which examine the governance of biological and chemical weapons.

Further details

Image Wikicommons

Skripal Affair: A more detailed public case is needed, but on what timelines?

Just over a month ago, the discovery of a father and daughter slumped on a bench in a small city in rural Wiltshire quickly spiraled into an international incident. In the days following, it became apparent that a nerve agent had been used, which had left the two initial victims fighting for their lives, injured a police officer and led to dozens of people receiving precautionary medical attention. The two initial victims were identified publicly as Sergei and Ulia Skripal. Sergie’s identity as a former Russian intelligence agent, quickly led to the suspicion that the Russian intelligence establishment had been involved in the attack. In the following days, it became clear that the UK government strongly suspected the involvement of the Russian state. And the UK would out put it to Russia that they believed the state had ordered the attack; or that Russia had lost control of their stocks.

A key aspect of the challenge facing the UK leaders has been the need to reassure the UK public the government is acting  with appropriate levels of confidence. At the same time, the UK government has also needed to build and present a case which respected national security needs and  a dynamic diplomatic timeline; while still showing due respect to domestic criminal investigatory processes. In such situations public trust is especially important. WMD accusations after all, are associated with a long history of exploitation by well-intentioned as well as unscrupulous people to vilify enemies. In the UK, it is clear that memories of the Iraq war in particular have given good reasons for both the public and officials to adopt a healthy skepticism on these issues. It is also clear, that there is  political capital that can  be squeezed out of such events- with point scoring appearing at times to take precedent over the issue at hand.

All this has occurred in the context of an emergent narrative war between Russia and the UK- with the UK seeking to defend its decisions in response to a chemical weapon attack, and Russia trying to undermine the UK’s international case for punitive action against the regime- and embarrass a government it accuses of capitalising on an incident for political ends. All this of course is reminiscent of the diplomatic saga which has surrounded international attempts to seek justice in relation to on-going chemical weapon use in Syria.

In this environment incontrovertible facts are a rare asset. And findings of DSTL scientists, as well as the  work the independent labs of the international chemical weapon watchdog the OPCW  ( expected to report this week) will remain key focus of debate.Forensic chemical analysis alone cannot be judge, jury and executioner of a case- but the identification of the presence of a sophisticated nerve agent points strongly to idea that there is a case to answer at the international level. Under international law states have a responsibility to not to develop, stockpile of employ these agents as weapons- as well as to ensure that no one else within their jurisdiction can either.

Last week Gary Aitkenhead chief executive of DSTL (the UK’s defence science laboratory) discussed the work of it’s labs in relation to the Salisbury nerve agent attack at a press conference. The statements did not reveal anything that had not already been made public in official press releases and prepared statements by the Foreign and Common Wealth Office and Prime minister in relation to the agent employed. Specifically that the chemical identity of the agent had been confirmed as a Novichok nerve agent and that this agent was produced through sophisticated techniques- suggesting military lab involvement.  He confirmed that it was not within DSTL’s remit to ascertain the specific source of the agent. Porton’s findings would have been based on both blood samples, which can confirm exposure but are less specific, and environmental samples which can provide more specific details on the chemical composition. Environmental samples can also provide broader details on the preparation of the agent. Further confirmation of all of this is expected from OPCW labs later this week.

Chemical forensics only forms part of the diplomatic, criminal and intelligence case against Russia- and indeed has only so far been one part of the publicly expressed rational for blaming Russia- which has focused on motive, means, previous acts by the Russian state, as well as Russia’s responses to UK’s robust diplomatic approach. This is a distinction which it is important to remember. It is also a distinction which has been lost in much of the tabloid press coverage, in a couple of isolated remarks from UK officials- and indeed in a tweet from the Foreign Office.

It is of course right that UK politicians are chastised for statements which could mislead the public, and commit the UK government to lines of action which could damage faith in both domestic and international institutions. A key evaluative criteria employed by the UK public, and within democratic states supporting UK action, will be the transparency and accessibility of the public case. So far, the UK government’s general strategy of seeking independent OPCW lab confirmation, which is insulated from both the domestic criminal and intelligence case building appears sensible – as it should provide a better grounding for broad base support. However, it is also creating problems- as currently UK allies have seen more details on the evidence underling the government’s decision than the UK public- and aspects of this or the governments own intelligence case are apparently starting to leak.

A multifaceted approach can help immunize more solid findings from the compound problem of media hype apparent the dynamics of an apparent propaganda war with Russia. However, it is clear their remains a need for more detailed public case to be put forward for scrutiny. Will we see a Parliamentary debate following the publication of findings by the OPCW labs- perhaps accompanied by a more detailed case? It appears this would be a responsible step- and would potentially mean  that more parliamentarians were better briefed on the details of the government’s evidence.

In addition there is of course a need for a broader conversation about how to foster democratic principles which can cope with the disorientating information environment we have found ourselves within.

Brett Edwards

Novichok: the deadly story behind the nerve agent in Sergei Skripal spy attack

Alastair Hay, University of Leeds

Against the backdrop of Salisbury’s beautiful cathedral, a new word recently gained global notoriety. But the three people who had the right to know most about Novichok, a nerve agent, were oblivious to its sudden appearance in headlines around the world – for they lay fighting for their lives in a British hospital.

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, his daughter Yulia, 33, and police detective sergeant Nick Bailey, were all exposed to Novichok (or “newcomer”, to use its more parochial translation from Russian) in the English city on March 4. The circumstances surrounding the case are still being investigated – but the latest (unconfirmed and improbable) reports suggest that Skripal may have been exposed through the air vents of his BMW car.

You can listen to an audio version of this article here.

Skripal was directly targeted, and perhaps his daughter was too, although it may simply have been Yulia’s proximity to her father that resulted in her exposure. Bailey was affected by the nerve agent as he was one of the first to respond and came into contact with it at a location as yet unknown. The police officer’s exposure is more likely to have been through contact with the nerve agent contaminating some surface.

At the time of writing, the Skripals remain in a critical condition in hospital. Bailey, meanwhile, is reportedly making a slow recovery and may be able to speak about his ordeal, perhaps providing vital clues. Environmental sampling will provide the evidence showing where the Skripals were most likely exposed and, hopefully, how that exposure occurred.

While the full facts have yet to come to light, the Novichok attack is developing into a full-blown international incident. The UK and Russia, which Britain has blamed for the attack, are now engaged in an increasingly bad-tempered tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.

The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, even pointed the finger squarely at the Russian president, Vladimir Putin himself. Johnson said:

We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War.

So how did we get here? And why do these lethal chemical agents exist at all?

The first nerve agents

The story stretches back to 1936, when the first nerve agent, named tabun (after the German word for “taboo”), was synthesised by talented German chemist Gerhard Schrader. Schrader was investigating organophosphate compounds for the Third Reich in an effort to find suitable insecticides to improve crop yields. He quickly discovered that tabun was too toxic to ever be used in farming as it would almost certainly kill those applying it. A year later, however, he developed a second, even more toxic nerve agent: sarin.

Tabun was the first nerve agent to be made.

In debriefings by Allied intelligence officers after World War II, Schrader said that he’d been required to inform the Nazi authorities about his discoveries. But while Germany made munitions with both tabun and sarin, which were discovered at the end of the war, they were never used against Germany’s opponents.

Reasons for this are unclear. Some historians cite Hitler’s own exposure to chemical weapons during World War I and his apparent revulsion towards their use in battle. Others note Churchill’s warning to Hitler that any use by Germany of chemical or biological agents would be met with a swift response. But the most convincing reason is likely to be the one mooted by Schrader himself.

Schrader noted in his post-war debrief that other scientists around the world, including in Britain, were working on organophosphate chemicals and believed that they were almost certain to have also discovered nerve agents. So if Germany used them, other countries would use them on Germany. In fact, Schrader was wrong; only Germany had the chemicals.

Nazi Germany had weaponised nerve agents, but never used them against Allied troops, pictured here landing during D-Day.

Going global

After World War II, however, the UK, US and Soviet Union gained access to Nazi chemical know-how – and many German scientists began working for the victors. At the time, the prevailing view was that chemical weapons would almost certainly be used in a future conflict, and so the military usefulness of nerve agents such as tabun and sarin was investigated.

But tabun and sarin had their limitations. They were well suited for use on a rapidly moving battlefront because they vaporised and broke down in contact with water and so would disappear rapidly after use. But this left a gap in the arsenal, so-to-speak, for more persistent, longer-lived agents.

These were developed in the UK in the 1950s and include the now well-known VX. This was the nerve agent used in the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur airport.

Unlike sarin and tabun, VX-type agents, which have an oily texture and are very slow to evaporate, were considered to be what’s called area-denial chemicals. Any troops, or vehicles, moving through an area where VX had been used would have to be rigorously protected, compromising their manoeuvrability and fighting efficiency.

Nerve agents were evolving. But so too were the kinds of targets for chemical weapons. Increasingly, they were being used against civilians.

Who controls them?

About 20 different nerve agents have now been manufactured and all are listed, and restricted, under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Novichoks are an exception because they have never been declared, more on which later.

In World War I, before the arrival of nerve agents, it was primarily troops who were affected by chemical weapons. During that conflict, some 1.5m military casualties were exposed to irritants such as chlorine and phosgene, or the blistering agent mustard gas – and around 8-10% of those affected, died. Meanwhile, around 1,000 civilians were injured by chemical weapons during that war.

Soldiers wearing World War I gas masks. L-R: American, British. French, German.

Since World War I, however, chemical weapons have been used by Italy in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935-6; by Japan in China during World War II; by Egypt in Yemen between 1963 and 1967; by Iraq in Iran (1983-1988) and Kurdistan (1988); and between 2013 and 2017 by the Syrian government against its own people. Sarin was also used in a 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, killing 13 and making thousands more ill. This is not a comprehensive list, but many of the victims of these attacks, particularly in Kurdistan and Syria, were civilians rather than troops.

Evidence of Iraq’s 1988 chemical attack on civilians in the Kurdistan town of Halabja, which included the use of sarin nerve agent, accelerated discussions already underway on a comprehensive chemical weapons treaty at the UN Council on Disarmament. In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was agreed. In 1997, the convention became international law following ratification of the treaty by 65 countries.

Today, 192 countries are fully paid-up members of the convention with only North Korea, Israel, South Sudan and Egypt still not part of the group. However, as the convention is international law, these four countries are still bound by its provisions that any use of a chemical to deliberately harm another person constitutes use of a chemical weapon – and is illegal.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) oversees implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and supervises destruction of declared chemical weapons and any production facilities for these weapons. To date, approximately 96% of declared stockpiles have been destroyed. In October 2017, Russia announced that it had destroyed its stocks of some 40,000 tonnes. The US is expected to complete destruction of its weapons stockpile by around 2021-2022.

In addition to supervising the destruction of stockpiles, the OPCW operates a control regime for chemicals that are either chemical weapons or could be used to make them. Every year, each signatory to the convention is required to provide the OPCW with details on the location, manufacture, use, sale or disposal of these substances. The OPCW audits these returns and verifies them by random annual inspections of some 400 military bases and chemical companies around the globe.

All manufacturing programmes which resulted in stocks of chemical weapons exceeding one tonne per year after January 1, 1946 must be declared to the OPCW. But on March 16, 2018, the OPCW announced that it had never been notified about Novichok-type nerve agents by any state.

So what is Novichok and what does it do to its victims?

Novichok family

There is no doubt that nerve agents similar to the Novichok family exist, something that has been described by defectors from Russia. One of these was used to poison the Skripals and Bailey.

Nerve agents, including certain Novichoks, are part of the family of organophosphate compounds – albeit at the most toxic end of the spectrum. They all operate in a similar way by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE). The enzyme can be found in various locations in the body, but it’s at the junctions between nerves and muscles where its activity is most critical. AChE regulates the message from nerve to muscle by inactivating the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine binds to receptors at the neuromuscular junction, instructing the muscle to contract. The enzyme then removes this messenger, splits it in two, and with its removal from the receptor the muscle relaxes. This cycle is repeated as often as required by the demands on the muscles.

Inhibition of this removal and cleavage process sends all muscles into spasm and they no longer function normally. The effects are wide-ranging with the most critical being on lung and heart function. Respiratory paralysis is common in severe poisoning and the resulting lack of oxygen to critical organs, such as the heart and brain, can have serious consequences. If untreated, it may be fatal.

Exactly where, when and by whom these chemicals were made, however, and how and who used them against the Skripals remain unclear, triggering a major international crisis.

Was Putin really behind the Skripals nerve agent attack?

The UK is now exercising its rights under the CWC and has asked the OPCW to investigate Russia’s so-called Novichok programme. This is the first time one party to the CWC has accused another of attacking it with a chemical weapon. It will be a major challenge for the OPCW, which has been invited to send inspectors to the UK to collect samples for testing. The OPCW will use its own laboratory in Rijswijk, next to The Hague, and perhaps one of some 20 other designated facilities around the world to confirm the exact identity of the nerve agent.

Once it is confirmed, the OPCW will endeavour to find out more. However, it has never pointed the finger of blame at a user. Its remit is to confirm the use or identity of chemical agents and it can be called upon to carry out inspections in countries accused of using one. Others, such as the UN, will then assess the evidence and do the finger pointing. This is what happened when Syria was accused in 2017 of using chemical weapons against its own population.

Read more:
Russian spy attack shows international law on chemical weapons is not fit for purpose

The CWC does not preclude bilateral action by its signatories – and Britain and Russia have already begun expelling each other’s diplomats over the row. Russia has also closed the British Council and a UK consulate in St Petersburg.

On the ground

But what of the situation on the ground in Salisbury, where the Skripals were attacked? Nerve agents can poison somebody though inhalation, ingestion or skin contact which is why investigators in Salisbury are wearing full protective clothing and gas masks.

In fact, it is now the investigators, rather than the public, who face the risk of sustained exposure to any contamination. Some 130 people have so far been identified who may have been in contact with the agent but none beyond the Skripals and Bailey have shown any symptoms.

It was reported that the Skripals were essentially comatose when discovered and so were unable to say how they felt. But paramedics would likely have found the couple struggling to breathe. They may also have noticed twitching muscles, a glassy appearance to the eyes with pinpoint pupils and profuse salivation. In hospital, there may have been evidence of increasing fluid build-up in the lungs, and their heart rates may either have been rapid or slowed, and uneven.

Effects on the brain would be less evident as the couple were unconscious, but can include restlessness, headache, confusion and convulsions. A part of the brain is concerned with regulation of respiration and this may be affected directly, slowing breathing. A fall in blood pressure is also likely.

Possible treatments

Antidotes to reverse the clinical effects of nerve agents are available and are more likely to be successful if administered early. Around 200 cases of less severe accidental poisoning and four severe ones have been reported since 1948.

In all of the severe cases, the person poisoned lost consciousness and breathing was inhibited. But prompt treatment by doctors who were nearby and aware of the potential for exposure resulted in the victims’ full recovery.

In a quirk of fate, the UK’s own defence teams against chemical weapons are located at Porton Down, just outside Salisbury. Indeed, there have also been tests on hundreds of military servicemen with small doses of nerve agents and in 1953, after one poorly conducted test in the UK, a 20-year-old leading aircraftman, Ronald Maddison, died. The 2004 inquest into his death returned a verdict of unlawful killing. It’s also claimed that in the Novichok programme one person was accidentally exposed and died.

Treatment can include the rapid administration of atropine. This blocks the effects of acetylcholine accumulation by occupying the same receptors and reverses some symptoms, but has little effect on skeletal muscle. The rule of thumb is to maintain dosing of atropine (at intervals) until the heart rate is over 90 beats per minute. Administration may be necessary for a significant period.

Drugs known as oximes can also be used as an antidote. These restore enzyme activity and, crucially, skeletal muscle function. But oximes tend to be specific for certain types of nerve agent and it is unclear which would work with the specific Novichok agent as there is little information in the public domain about them or their effective treatments. Faced with this dilemma, the clinicians treating the Skripals and Bailey would have had to have made a choice.

A third drug used in nerve agent poisoning is diazepam, which can prevent any dangerous convulsions which might occur. Regrettably, however, evidence indicates that severe nerve agent poisoning can cause long-term irreversible changes in brain function.

Nerve agents are grotesque weapons and their use against civilians is a deeply disturbing trend. But in the weeks to come, there will have to be a dispassionate review of the evidence. And as the spat between Russia, and the UK and its allies worsens, cool heads will be needed.

Amid all this frenetic activity, however, we must not forget the three victims – and wish them a swift recovery. After all, they are the ones paying the heaviest price.

The Conversation

Read more:
Nerve agents: what are they and how do they work?

Alastair Hay, Professor (Emeritus) of Environmental Toxicology, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The politics of international chemical weapon justice: The case of Syria, 2011–2017

There has been near-universal condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. The international community has nevertheless struggled to make progress on holding the perpetrators to account. This article reviews developments at the international level in terms of Syrian chemical weapon justice between 2011 and 2017. It argues that there have been substantive disagreements between states on the rationale and means of justice in the Syrian case. It also argues that international initiatives have been tightly intertwined with developments in chemical disarmament and conflict resolution processes as well as the broader war. The article describes progress and challenges to chemical weapon justice in a number of distinct formal international mechanisms during the period studied. The analysis concludes by contextualizing international responses—including the U.S. tomahawk strikes against a Syrian airbase—to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack of April 2017.
KEYWORDS: Civil war, peacebuilding, arms control and disarmament, United Nations, international regimes

Contemporary Security Policy


KEYWORDS: Civil war, peacebuilding, arms control and disarmament, United Nations, international regimes



Automatic Dread

AI war

In this piece I review the rather directly entitled monograph  ‘Why the United States Must Adopt Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems’ written by Major John. W Brock II. The book is timely, vivid, concise and powerfully written- which makes it a useful work to critique. In my response, I take issue with some of the pessimistic working assumptions in the work. Specifically, I suggest that it would be naïve to completely discount the prospect of  effective  suppression, prohibition and stigma norms emerging around Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) at the global level. I initially present a summary of the book’s central argument- before outlining my own thoughts.

Argument Summary (as presented in the book)

1) Artificial Intelligence and Robots are game changers

  • Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) will bring about the third revolution in military affairs and radically transform  broader society
  • If the US do not develop LAWS they will be at a strategic disadvantage

2) That East and West have differing views on Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology.

  • Eastern countries see AI as an economic saviour which can improve their society
  • Western culture treats AI with ‘paranoia, anxiety and scepticism’
  • This is causing the West to lose the global robotic arms race and lose economic dominance
  • Many countries are now developing LAWS; Including Russia and China
  • However, differing cultural perspectives are creating divergence between those willing and unwilling to adopt the new technology
  • Currently, the US has a self-imposed ban on such systems
  • However,  the US will eventually engage with such systems regardless of current  moral and ethical objections.
  • If the US falls too far behind its adversaries it may never be able to catch up

3) The US is losing it’s military edge due primarily to it’s over reliance and investment into traditional military capabilities

  • The US military is trapped in it’s human centric way of thinking- which is currently preventing the US from maintaining it’s technological edge and from defeating future adversaries
  • While the US is still investing heavily into military personnel; Russia, China and other Eastern states) have sort to replace costly human soldiers.

4) The US must adopt new Lethal Autonomous Weapon System focussed approach.

  • The US must lift it’s own self-imposed ban on LAWS
  • The US must train solider to improve the effectiveness of  AI technology; rather than investing into augmenting human capacities- this will help the US keep it’s edge

Initial thoughts..

The central thrust of this book is that of a warning. It highlights the risk of technological surprise to the US from determined adversaries. The book emphasises the idea that a large scale sub-nuclear war between the US and China is inevitable- and argues that LAWS will be essential to winning. A few years ago, we saw similar arguments which accompanied US Defence investment into human augmentation technologies; a policy which this book criticises as been too conservative.  In this sense, it is worth remembering that the work comes at time in which the Third Offset Strategy (which informed priorities in the current model of US defence technology investment) is being re-evaluated. It is clear then, that this work will be of value to those seeking military funding in areas relevant to LAWS.

The book comes at a very specific moment in the history of LAWS. On one hand, the march of technological progress (specifically in the military sector) appears inevitable- in at least some forms. However,  boundary work on the legality/ ethics of AI technology is still evolving; it is not yet clear in what respect LAWs will come to be ostracised or normalised as part of warfare. What is clear however, is that such boundary work will not be centred on the type of long-standing categorical prohibitions which exist around chemical and biological weapons- and will emerge with reference to broader humanitarian principles. They will involve the playing out of a number of processes domestically in key states, as well as at the international level.

As Richard Price observed, in his study of the chemical weapon norm; revolutionary military technologies always face initial resistance- and sometimes long-standing stigmas and controls emerge, and sometimes they don’t- this is not predetermined and is a product of  the interaction of political  struggle, happenstance and broader historical factors. The normative landscape around these weapons, as with other weapon systems, will continue to evolve. This will involve pitched battles around different forms of system and different forms of use.   As it currently stands, it is clear that campaigns in the West have been successful in putting the burden of evidence on Western governments who must demonstrate the efficacy of certain types of weapon before they are developed and employed.

It is apparent, that while analogies might be drawn between the  historic emergence of ethical and legal frameworks directed at earlier emergent military technologies; LAWs will have a distinct history. One thing which is clear however, is that campaigns have worked in the past; and that such campaigns do not need to secure a comprehensive and universal prohibition to affect state behaviour.

Thinking beyond the history of disarmament. The argument in Major Brock’s book can also be contextualised in broader norms surrounding societal assessment of technology in Western states. Central to this area of policy is the idea that advanced societies are dependent on the development and exploitation of new technologies- to provide ever increasing productivity and security. Developments which will often at the same time raise challenges to social order and security.

In contemporary understandings, technological progress is seen as inevitable; but publics are often framed as irrational, fickle and squeamish. For this reason, new technologies are conceived as vulnerable and prone to public backlash. In this context, the often stated cautionary tale is that societies might miss out on the potentials of a technology due to short-sighted prohibition. Just behind this reality, but often initially obscured, also often sits the idea that specific areas of technology often compete with other tech fields for resources. Emerging technologies also often face resistance within militaries, and from other technologists who have invested resources into more established tech.

This all means that the vulnerability of early technology, and the potential that it is irretrievably and unwisely condemned to the dustbin of history, stems not only from the more dramatic threat of draconian regulation – but from flighty and fickle investors- be that the state or in the private sphere. This then, allows the Author to sensibly talk about the vulnerability of LAWS in the US.  However, the importance of this vulnerability is dependent on if we agree with the diagnosis of the international system provided by the author.

Finally, this work can be contextualised in the broader global security environment;  with the US cast centre stage as the declining hegemon. Intrinsic to this perspective is the idea that attempts to conserve US global dominance are not only desirable but inevitable. And further to this, that the relative power gains made by other states- who are likely (if not guaranteed) to vigorously exploit this area of technology for their own ends, will likely undermine the security of the US.

The essay is written then, to create and integrate a specific vision of this technology into the US policy maker and public imagination- at a time in which support is being sort for LAWS investment in the US. I am not arguing that the claims made in the work about either the technology or the broader international system are not shrewd- or the purpose of the work misguided or ethically questionable. However, it is clear to me that this type of polemic tends to serve to marginalise from our field of vision some important ideas and considerations; in both moral, analytical and more practical terms.

Automatic Dread…

Even if the projections for this technology in this work prove to be only partially true, automation will continue to transform a wide range of sectors in society. It will also reflect (if not drive) the contemporary shift in global power relations which is already well on the way. However, it is clear to me that the working assumptions about the disruptive potential of technology should be opened up to critical appraisal.

In essence, I agree that these arguments reflect accessible, and perhaps even seductive understandings and characterisations. However, they do not speak to the more complex socio-economic and political factors (both international and domestic) in play which shape the design and implementation of innovation policy as well as long term military planning, investment and adoption. Some key criticisms are now discussed.

First, it is true that early debates about the prohibition of technologies, as well as line drawing and labelling in prohibition campaigns tend to frame bans in binary terms ( i.e prohibited or normalised). However, in reality prohibition and norms against use tend to be partial ( in terms of scope and observance)- relying on logics of denial, dissuasion and suppression. Furthermore, It is not possible to confidently claim that a specific area of weapon development will (or will not) be insulated from broader moral evaluation and societal control in the longer term; or how this would feed back into internationally embedded norms over time. Indeed, A key  thrust of the adoption of LAWS in the US is the idea that other states are not holding back- and so will continue to develop and employ the technology in the long term. Something which would make any attempt at control, including self-denial and moral leadership ineffective. However, ethical relativism on a specific technology or even innovation more broadly does not preclude the possibility of practical collaboration in terms of arms control and disarmament; especially if powers see benefit from keeping technology out of the hands of others.  The Author argues that China have no interest in this- reflected in it’s current investment, security interests, and broader cultural acceptance of autonomous technology.  However, even if all of these are accepted as working assumptions none of these factors would preclude the emergence of international control agreements; as a result of overlapping interests, or trade-offs with other issues at the international level.

Another theme in the work is that AI is a complete game changer in terms of military strategy and the character of war. However, while technology does have significant inertia it never fully transcends established political military cultures- even in more centralised authoritarian states. Nor will AI ‘end history’ and transcend the constraining aspects of the broader international system; including but not limited to; threat/response dynamics between dominant and emergent powers, emergent competitor technologies, counter-AI strategies which might undermine it’s utility (including the ‘surprise of the old’) and evolving economic and social models. This ofcourse needs substantial unpacking- and the strength of this argument is not only contingent, but dependent on the time scales we are thinking in. The key point is we must be careful in placing specific technological trajectories too centrally in our visions of the future; in strategic or more cultural terms.

Finally, is worth remembering that it is the role of military planners to consider worst-case scenarios. However, a worry is that such scenario thinking inadvertently creates a reality which could have been avoided. This is not a wide eyed call to give peace a chance; but it is a call to open them a little wider.

Brett Edwards

Cover Image is a screen shot from the Black Mirror TV series currently available on Netflix.

ICRC – Humanitarian perspectives on the changing face of war

Technology, Terrorism, and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century

This week, we are looking at something a bit different to our usual fare. We are considering an E-briefing from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), via their journal the International Review of the Red Cross. The ICRC is the most important NGO in terms of warfare. It is hugely influential in terms of the law of armed conflict, and state policy towards humanitarian aspects of war. Here we discuss their piece ‘Humanitarian perspectives on the changing face of war‘ (available here). It considers how war, and its relationship with victims of war, has changed over the past few centuries. It is an interesting read, and I encourage you to check it out. 


Here’s what we thought: 


This briefing paper from the International Review of the Red Cross gives a short summary of something of the changing nature of warfare. Though the article is brief, and…

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