The Intimacies of Remote Warfare

US Soldier talking tho Ghana soldiers
An American soldier talks to Ghana soldiers.

In recent years, Western states have increasingly resorted to remote warfare to govern ‘threats at a distance’ across the Middle East and Africa often outside conventional warzones. Remote warfare is a form of military interventionism characterised by a shift away from boots on the ground towards deploying light-footprint military operations.

It generally involves a combination of drone strikes and airstrikes from above, special operation forces, private contractors and military training teams on the ground. Although remote warfare is partly about distancing, it also involves close contact through M2M trainings, political alliance formations and collaboration, but also through material manifestations such as bases, compounds, airfields, trucks, ships, supply depots, and bunkers.

Politcal transparency

While successful at times in terms of defeating enemy combatants, these operations also have led to new and shadowy forms of militarisation, high numbers of civilian casualties and undermined a democratic check on government. The state’s war machine is increasingly off the public’s radar. Remote technologies and forms of organisation allow Western military to largely physically withdraw from the battlefield. Returning body bags are increasingly a thing of the past, and so too is public outcry and scrutiny. And if civilian deaths from airstrikes do incidentally appear on our screens, a lack of political transparency on who is involved and why, and the repeated claim that interventions are ‘precise and clean’, blurs any public debate on responsibility, and accountability.

A camera drone.

This is problematic, because without tracing how creating security-ness for some, may lead to a heightened insecurity for others we run the risk of overseeing the interconnectedness of today’s war zones, and, importantly, how clusters of conflict cross-infect and exacerbate each other. In our digital age, it is impossible to wage a secret war or commit atrocities without being seen. And, ultimately, without having to suffer the consequences of some sort of blowback. This highlights the need for building an independent, evidence-based expert field which is able to inform the public about the impacts and intimate realities of the remote wars that are waged in their names. The Intimacies of Remote Warfare project is a step in this direction.

The conference on the Intimacies of Remote Warfare

The conference Intimacies of Remote Warfare, held on the 6 and 7th of December 2017 at Utrecht University, and supported by the Centre of Global Challenges, aimed to address a lack of evidence on the production, dynamics and impacts of remote warfare.

The seminar facilitated an exchange of ideas, evidence and data-gathering strategies between academics, journalist, lawyers, politicians and representatives of watchdogs and NGO’s. Participants discussed what analytical vocabularies are helpful to capture remote warfare: how current wars differ from earlier (colonial) military interventions: how (alliances of) ‘global’ and ‘local’ actors aim to pursue their objectives through war and militarization; how remote warfare upsets the notion of ‘war as duel’, as a form of reciprocal violence; how remote warfare is publically legitimized and (un)accounted for; and finally what research strategies and methodologies may help to gather reliable data on covert operations. 

Lauren Gould and Jolle Demmers, the organisers of the conference, are currently setting up a number of research projects under the heading of The Intimacies of Remote Warfare, in collaboration with PAX, Airwars and The Remote Warfare Programme, London. You can also check their article in Security Dialogue on liquid warfare.

For more information, you can visit the website of the project, The Intimacies of Remote Warfare

Scholars involved
Associate Professor
Assistant Professor