How technology can create conflict

How technology can create conflict

By Professor David Galbreath

Note from PaCCS:  This piece has been re-published with permission from Professor David Galbreath.  It was first published as evidence to the House of Commons All Parliamentary Group on ‘Global Uncertainties’ on 17 November  

The nature of conflict has always been connected to the application of technologies. In fact, nearly all social behaviour is. We can understand technology in a broader sense than that of the modern sense of communication or kinetic power. Technology should be understood both in its conceptual forms as well as applied forms. Let us think of the relationship between the way we may seek to broaden horizons on the battlefield and the technologies the give us situational awareness through visual and aural technologies.

The conceptual and applied forms of technologies are non-linear and complex. The reason why it is important to understand the nature of technologies is because the non-linear and complex relationship between concepts and applications has a defining result for conflict whether at the individual or group level. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the ways militaries have sought to detect and destroy them are such examples of how the convergence of science and technologies has a direct impact on a conflict. Techno-science examines this relationship between science and technology and our social behaviour.

Understanding technology in warfare

Technology has shaped conflict in several ways, but mainly kinetic force, spatial distribution, intelligence, communications, and identity. Kinetic force can be seen in the advent and perpetuation of explosive materials and delivery mechanisms as well as the armoury that is used to defend against it. Technologies that allow for spatial distribution are those that allow force to be projected across geographical space, such as wheeled and tracked vehicles as well as air and naval forces. Intelligence technologies allow us to gather and process data. Communications technologies allow us to exchange that information peer-to-peer and across groups. Finally, technologies allow for subterfuge in the area of identity in the way that the internet has allowed security services and hackers to access information, use near-kinetic force and disrupt systems.

We can see how each of these technological areas have conceptual and practical applications. They also have modern and emerging corollaries in modern conflict. From biochemical agents to UAVs, modern conflict is replete with technologies that constantly test the boundaries of what we might call the rules of contemporary social behaviour. As we can see in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Syria, UAVs with their integrated aviation design, industrial light-weight materials, satellite connectivity, remote control operability and ability to carry a kinetic payload for some means that the limits to how WE think about space, agency and time are all tested to what they were when limited by traditional ground or air vehicles. Importantly, and here the UAV is a useful example, technologies are most often created to enforce existing boundaries of social behaviour but very often go on to transform them.

But what makes the UAV such an interesting technological example is its converged nature. Remote control warfare, as is often pointed out, is over 100 years old. Yet, the UAV is interesting because there sit many different technologies that have allowed the drone to be such an effective and controversial operational form. It is this convergence of science and technologies that provides so much opportunity but at the same time produces so much uncertainty.

From a traditional Clausewitzian perspective, conflict, like war itself, is political. If we take this perspective then we see technology as being not a driver per se but something that aids the political objectives of those who seek to use force, kinetic or otherwise, to achieve political aims. Alternatively, we can see technology as providing a driving role in social behaviour including but not limited to conflict. This technologically centred approach suggests that conflict can arise in ways that are determined, not by their political objectives but by the constitutional realities that have been determined by the technological possibilities of the age. For instance, allow us to take the First World War and the logic of applying man power in converging, directed, eventful ways such as wave after wave of British charges on German lines to little or no effect. This form of warfare no longer had a role in a different technological age wherein the ability to seize and hold territory was challenged by the defence technologies of the day. The role of technology changed the course of the war and the resulting political settlement. Technology had a constitutionalising role in this and every war and conflict since.

Current technologies and changing conflicts

So let us understand the current technologies that are driving and changing conflict. I want to focus on three such technological drivers. Firstly, international extremism and insurgency is able to recruit and foment in ways that left-wing guerrillas of the Cold War could have only dreamed. The message of discrimination and empowerment is so easily communicated now via social media platforms that once again challenge the boundaries and legal jurisdictions of states. The response is also to be extra-juridical in how states seek to combat such threats. The problem European states face is how to respond to the mobilising effects of informational and communication technologies (ICT). There has been considerable research funded by the RCUK that looks at these challenges of extremism and the ways that we may take to combat them that are in their character techno-political. By techno-political, we mean political messages that cannot be separated from the technology used to deploy it.

The second technological driver of conflict is cyber. Cyber is a growing consideration for our security services and security studies. Cyber threats relay on that which we all now depend: the internet. Cyber can be a cause of conflict because of what has been called its near-kinetic effects. Both states and non-state actors are using cyber as a way to strike others. Cyber plays with the limits of space and identification by allowing actors to target anywhere connect to a network and somewhat if they are not, as the case of ‘Stuxnet’ while at the same time making it difficult to identify the culprits until much after the event, if at all. How would we, for instance, know if the UK was under a low level cyber attack that was the precursor to something much larger and kinetic. Cyber obscures the identity of the would-be attacker and further challenges the lawful, systemised way in which we act in the face of a threat. The internet is a challenging environment for how we think conflict may evolve in the future.

The final technological driver of conflict is what we could call kitchen-sink weapons. In the pre-modern age, the ability to produce weapons was only limited by the resources that were available (wood, iron) but their make and use was widely distributed. In the modern era however, the instruments of war became very heavily industrialised and complex. We are in many areas coming full circle. The ability to make complex weapons has become much easier with technologies such as the internet, 3D printing and bio-engineering.

How important has the internet been in providing basic to advance intelligence to insurgence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere? How effective were the Taliban in Afghanistan in being able to use everyday substances combined with the information on how to use them? How lethal has the Syrian government become in using binary weapons to go around the use of chemical weapons. Such a technology is not limited to the Syrian state.

All of these technologies have something in common. They all relay on access to information that used to be more controlled through formal institutions, government funding, and even sat specifically with military. This modern development needs be evaluated in three ways:

  • Encouraging responsible developments in science and technologies while at the same time being innovative and responsive.
  • Being mindful of the legal and political challenges that such innovation presents.
  • Promoting further cooperation and collaboration between academia, government and industry to understand and mitigate the global uncertainty that comes with technological development.

Professor David Galbreath is the Partnership’s Conflict Theme Leadership Fellow (  He is Professor of International Security at the University of Bath, focusing on the changing character of warfare through changes in science and technology.  Professor Galbreath is also Director of the Centre for War and Technology and Editor-in-Chief of both European Security and Defence Studies.