SNT Really Makes Reality: Technological Innovation, Non-Obvious Warfare and the Challenges to International Law

Principal Investigator:

Professor Guglielmo Verdirame

Research Institution:

King’s College London

Project summary:

The SNT Really Makes Reality project examined the characteristics of technological and social change in the context of obvious and non-obvious warfare in the 21st century. In particular, the project explored these challenges in the context of existing international law framework that regulates the use of force.  Further to this, it also examined attitudes to social change in obvious and non-obvious among UK military personnel.

The project brought together both scientific and technological experts in international law and security to identify and critically reflect on the chief technical characteristics, including those that have potential or actual application in warfare. These included forms of cyber-attacks and cyber-warfare, data, autonomous and semi-autonomous systems and chemical and biological weapons.

A number of findings were generated by the research, including:

  • Existing law can accommodate technological and scientific innovation as it applies to the conduct of war.
  • The position with regard to new technologies needs to be resolved through interpretation and practice.
  • Four key areas of technological change provoke a particular need for greater legal clarity including cyber weapons, digital information gathering, autonomous weapons and synthetic biology.
  • Specific challenges relate to:
    • Computer network attacks that challenge the legal framework of ‘self-defence’ and of ‘armed attack’.
    • Potential difficulties in assigning attribution for computer network attacks render self-defence impossible in any case.
    • Finding the correct ethical and legal balance of the interests of security versus privacy with regard to the collection of ‘big data’ and its use for the prevention of terrorism.
    • Identifying the point at which meaningful autonomy is reached (the extent to which there remains a ‘human in the loop’) and the implications for the application of individual criminal responsibility in the context of International Human Law.
    • Identifying the boundary between predictable and non-predictable outcomes and the implications for applying criminal responsibility.
  • Where there are gaps, new law may be required or at the very least clarification of existing law with respect to scientific and technological innovation.
  • Ambiguities arising from new technologies and non-obvious warfare are generating pressures on the military resulting from allegations of wrong-doing and ethical unease surrounding ‘drone warfare’.
  • The main challenge is to apply existing law to the activities of non-state actors participating in contemporary armed conflict and to enforce existing law with respect to states who may be flouting it.


The project generated a series of research papers that were presented at two project workshops attended by academics and policy makers from Cabinet Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DSTL. The papers are now being collated for an edited volume to be published late in 2015. The project team have worked with members of the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre and to the Canadian Department of Justice War Crimes Investigations Unit to inform them of the research.

The team has also contributed to workshops at the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Studies Association Annual Convention. Further to this, they have presented their findings at a number of conferences including the International Law Association Conference, the Inter-University Seminar on the Armed Forces and the Marine Autonomous Systems Conference, which was attended by more than 200 people from the defence industry.  

Contact Information

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