What do you expect to be the most important trend in the future of technology, terrorism, and/or armed conflict in the rest of this century?

Here, we come to our final week of full discussions. After more than 2 years of work on the Technology, Terrorism, and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century research network, it is coming to an end in terms of regular material. It’s been immensely interesting to read, watch, think about, and discuss a variety of topics and issues that we’re all interested in. But, the time to move on has come. Beyond technology, terrorism, and armed conflict there are more concepts to discuss and ideas to dream up. So, that’s what Mike and I (Josh) are going to do. We’ve started a podcast as a vehicle for us to discuss wider things. You’re more than welcome to come along for the ride. We’ll publicise it soon. 

The TTAC21 website will remain in place for at least another year. A few members who have joined later on have already sent in comments for previous posts. I’ll update the original posts with them in the next few weeks. 

If you have something new to say on the issues covered by the network, you are more than welcome to write a blog to be published here. Or if you want to comment on any of the pieces we’ve previously looked at, either pop your ideas in the comments box at the bottom or e-mail them over. 

The network itself will now become a mailing list for sharing interesting pieces, calls for applications/papers, and that sort of thing. We’ve amassed a really great group of people in TTAC21, so it would seem a waste to not keep in touch. If you aren’t on the mailing list but would like to be, just send an email and we will add you to it. 

Before we look at our answers to the question, I thought I would explain the pictures in this post. The featured image at the top of the page is one of Jean-Marc Côté’s pieces from his ‘En L’An 2000’ (In the year 2000) body of work. This was a series of postcards drawn for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. They show visions of 100 years into the future. fittingly for us, several relate to military operations and I’ll put a few in this post. If you want to see them all, they’re available here.


Now, for the final time, let’s see what we thought … 


TTAC21 has been going now for over 18 months, and in that time, its given us some fascinating discussion points. I for one have certainly benefitted from being a part of the network. To respond to this, the final ‘official’ question put the group, I’m not sure I can come up with a single answer. Since this research group came into being, we’ve already seen examples of drones causing disruption in a civilian setting, and this sort of thing will only become more prevalent over the coming years. How the rise of drones will affect the military setting however is another matter entirely. From my own perspective, I imagine the major western powers will continue investing over the odds in overly-expensive, overly-complex systems such as Reaper / Predator, while smaller players will start to make use of the disruptive power of drones to take on major powers at their own game. As Josh and I have said many times before, it can’t be long before people start strapping explosives to the sorts of drones that can be bought in shops. This will pose a massive problem for law enforcement agencies, and for military powers, as enemies and criminals will both have access to the sort of powers that for a short while were solely the preserve of the major players. Fighting drone crime and drone terrorism will certainly prove a major challenge in the years to come. 

But while drones are certainly one of the most important trends, I can’t help but think cybercrime will also continue to prove a problem – in particular in relation to electric / self-driving cars. If hackers can already break into certain cars via their stereo systems and advanced on board electronics, we can only imagine what might happen when self-driving cars become ubiquitous. Fair dodging and going ‘off grid’ will be the least of authorities’ problems as criminals may be able to kidnap individuals remotely, or even commit crimes of murder or mass murder without even having to enter the vehicle they intend to use as a weapon. And that’s just the tip of a very big cybercrime-related iceberg! 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


Perhaps I’ve been thinking about Paul Virilio a bit too much recently, but I think the biggest trend in the future of technology, terrorism, and armed conflict will be speed. Faster computing speeds allow for more computation and more complex computation to take place, leading to technological advances. Lots of people talk of artificial intelligence as being the future, yet AI is just computer programmes performing tasks that require human-level cognition. But as Alan Turing spoke about (in the 1930’s!) is that any universal computer can compute anything. So, what allows AI to be realised is the emergence of computing speed necessary to make these computer programmes work in an acceptable time. 

In terrorism, we see a battle between terrorist plotters trying to hide their activities and security services trying to investigate these activities. A terrorist can be as discrete as possible, but they will almost inevitably leave some clues. Thus, it becomes a race for security services to find these clues and stop a plot before the terrorists can put their plan into motion. Therefore, the faster a terrorist can move, the less chance they have of being caught. 

When it comes to warfare, the most significant trend we’ve seen in recent years is the revival of hybrid or non-linear warfare by Russia. Often, this involves changes in tactics or strategy to overwhelm the enemy in unexpected ways. For example, an adversary prepared for a typical military-on-military confrontation would be dealt severe blows if a force could melt into the civilian population only to pop up and carry out major attacks at irregular intervals. The sooner one force can adopt vastly different tactics to outwit their enemy, the more advantage they can gain. 

It’s also possible to conceptualise hybrid warfare as entailing temporary allegiances against common enemies. As such, the sooner allegiances can be made, then more force can be applied more quickly than otherwise. Plus, once those allegiances have run their course, the sooner one party can betray the other, the more advantage they can gain over them. Thus, speed is also a key concept in late modern warfare – and that is all before we even really look at the ever-increasing operational tempo of modern combat! 

In conclusion then, speed seems to be the basis of all major trends happening at the moment. I expect it to continue into the future. As it is the underlying trend, perhaps speed would be better conceptualised as a ‘meta-trend’? 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  

So, that’s what we thought, and that’s it. What do you think? 

How could technology overcome the challenges of urban warfare in the future?

Continuing our City and Urban Warfare theme, we are doing a bit of future-gazing and considering technological methods of overcoming the challenges of urban warfare we’ve thought about in previous weeks.


Here are our thoughts:

Urban warfare has long been seen as the great ‘leveller’ in conflict: the home of the rebel; the resistance fighter; Schmitt’s partisan.

One of the reasons for this ‘levelling’ quality is the fact that it counters many of the advantages offered by technology in conflict. Tanks for example struggle in urban warfare without sufficient infantry support, and the multi-level, uneven terrain makes war-fighting far more difficult for even the most well-trained soldier. Not only that, but the very nature of the battlefield means it can be the site for unexpected attack from any direction and from any attacker, who may or may not be marked as a legitimate military target.

While drones are certainly an option, an aerial presence isn’t quite the same as ‘feet on the ground’. For this reason I suggest small scale soldier-portable drones will be one advance in urban warfare, allowing for localised scouting, plus an additional, portable means of attack. As technology progresses, we may even reach the stage of ‘hunter-killer’ robots or at least remotely-controlled urban soldiers to replace troops on the ground; who will be able to exercise cool judgement while under fire and who will be fairly resistant to small arms fire and lesser IEDs.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

My first thought relating to a technology overcoming urban warfare challenges was robotics. But, that is obvious. So I wanted to mention three issues that come to mind: AI-based surveillance; increased armour capabilities; burrowing underground.

AI-based surveillance, particularly persistent surveillance can offer a force the ability to know where all people are at all times and where they have come from. We see similar capabilities attached to some drones currently. Such capabilities can tag and track all moving people in an area. This could be used to identify people who have visited a known terrorist safe-house, or bomb factory, but also to follow them and their interactions and conversations with other people. As we know, modern non-state actors are formed into networks, rather than traditional military hierarchies. This gives the ability to know possibly everyone in and connected to the network who could be targeted simultaneously. An AI system could also recognise a particular concentration of known terrorists in one place to signify a potential attack, or position to be heavily-defended. As we know from the fighting in Grozny, non-state actors holding temporary strong-holds is more effective than static ones in urban contexts. So, knowing where such people are before they can set up a temporary stronghold would remove this advantage from the enemy.

Increased armour on individual soldiers goes contrary to a principle of urban warfare: mobility. But, using advanced body and vehicle armour could allow military forces to set up their own temporary strongholds, from which they can fight the enemy in their territory. This perhaps seems strange, but we have seen operations in Afghanistan whereby troops in remote Fire Bases were essentially used as ‘bait’ to draw out the Taliban from their homes into a more traditional battlefield environment where ISAF forces had superiority. These types of temporary strongholds enable military force to determine the position and type of engagements they wish to have, rather than respond to attacks by the enemy.

Burrowing underground is simply a different option to going over ground with air forces, or going through walls as the Israelis did in Nablus in 2002. I admit, this idea comes from Xbox game ‘Gears of War’. Emerging from underground at points unknown to the enemy means that battles are fought on military, not non-state actor terms. It also gives the option to collapse buildings where enemy strongholds (temporary or permanent) are. This perhaps seems an unusual, if not ridiculous suggestion, but the First World War had a large number of burrowing troops digging under no-man’s land to plant explosives under enemy trenches. The modern city base of concrete foundations, underground railway and vast systems of underground piping would make this difficult. Or perhaps more destructive if major utility pipes were destroyed. Perhaps, the biggest difficulty would simply be the machinery requirements; tunnel-boring machines used to create underground railway lines are so big and unwieldy that it is cheaper for them to be dug into the end of their tunnels, rather than removed. If a more flexible tunnelling machine could be created, burrowing might be a possibility, this is future-gazing after all.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think!

How is modern warfare shaping what is required of fighters? Will other requirements be made of them in future conflicts? 

The second of our super-solders posts considers the demands modern war places upon today’s soldiers, rather than really thinking of human-enhancement. The regular deployments and increased bureaucracy make it a great change for a few decades ago where many soldiers never saw any real action, nor had to deal with a myriad of other governmental agencies whilst deployed. Basic soldering appears to be getting harder, as soldiers themselves may be getting weaker – we see applications and pass rates for special forces selection dropping in recent years. As our understanding of the impact of operations expand, are we asking too much of the young men and women we ask to fight for us? And can we guess at how this will play out in the future?


Here’s what we thought:

One of the most telling shifts in recent years in my mind has been the ever increasing surveillance surrounding military operations. ‘Kill cams’ and the like have of course been around for some time in the armoured sections of the military, but more specifically here I refer to the way surveillance is now also being used for the men and women on the ground. For me, this opens up a whole raft of problems in terms of accountability and responsibility in warfare, and strikes me also as a major shift towards the ‘robotisation’ of the armed forces. If a soldier can no longer act free from reprisal (or retrospective reprisal) for even the smallest of actions, then why send a human at all, when a machine will be far more effective?

But robots themselves come with their own problems and associated risks. As the 20th century has taught us, it is not good enough to merely shoot or bomb an ‘enemy’ into submission: we must consider the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace. And quite simply a robot is not in a position to fulfil this role. I wonder then if, long term, the human takes on more of a humanitarian role, while the fighting is left to the machines.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

It would seem that the most prevalent trend in modern warfare is operational tempo constantly increasing. We have seen the near-constant deployment of Western special forces since 9/11. The fact that the US have just re-committed to Afghanistan means that there is no chance of the ‘perpetual war on terror’ abating. Thus, it would seem that modern warfare is going to require fighters to fight on a continual basis, with much faster turn-around times between operations than previously. The days of Western nations waiting for the Eastern Bloc to come crashing through Germany are long gone. Indeed, with a terrorist enemy that is capable of attacking anytime, anywhere, it would seem that Western militaries must also be prepared to fight anytime and anywhere.

The strain on the family life of such fighters must be immense. Indeed, we can see in autobiographies of former SAS men that many marriages and family relationships simply fall apart when the soldier in the family is deployed to the other side of the world with only a few hours notice. So, it would seem that the military will require fighters to be totally committed to the causes they are fighting for, rather than their families or themselves. This is, of course totally the opposite of the trend towards providing worked with a greater work-life balance in order to actually be more productive.

Requirements of future conflicts are likely to ask more of soldiers during operations. We already know that counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in urban environments are some of the most cognitively difficult roles soldiers can be asked to do. Yet, with the likely rise of city states in the near future, they could be asked to operate in such environments regularly. Distinguishing who is friend or foe in todays conflicts is difficult, and we regularly see urban police mistake innocent people for armed criminals (particularly in the US), imagine the difficulty when both these issues are essentially combined in military operations in a failed city-state. Difficulty could be further added due to the reducing size of Western militaries. What if NATO countries transform their militaries into small but highly capable forces, in effect large quasi-special force? Small teams in failed city-states will likely have to fend for themselves if there is not a large enough force able to save them. Stories like Black Hawk Down may become far more regular for Western publics to tolerate.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.

What do you think?

Sawin – Creating Super Soldiers for Warfare: A Look into the Laws of War

This month we’ve decided to embark on some ‘themes’, where papers and questions we will consider (and you are welcome to join in) are on similar topics. The first we are looking at is the issues of super-solders, or military personnel with enhancements which may be biological. making them super-human, or mechanical by putting them in exoskeletons (like Iron Man), to make them stronger, tougher, more resilient, and able to complete missions and tasks quicker and more efficiently.

Our first consideration is ‘Creating super soldiers for warfare: A look into the laws of war’ by Christopher E. Sawin (17 J. High Tech. L. 105 2016). The article considers whether super-soldiers could ever be deployed in compliance with the law of armed conflict.

It’s available here.

Here’s what we thought:

In modern warfare, according to Sawin, there is a focus on abiding by lawful rules and limiting violence. Therefore, soldiers have to show restrain and be more selective in their fulfilment of military objectives.  The most common form of contemporary warfare is asymmetric warfare, which makes restraint and selectiveness even more important as soldiers are often faced with enemies that do not wear distinctive uniform and are able to blend in and out of civilian life at ease (so-called farmers by day soldiers by night).  Arguably, one of the most important requirements of modern soldiers is accurate decision-making.

Sawin postulates that future wars will become harsher and that the use of human enhancement technology to support the capability of soldiers to deal with harsher demands makes sense.  Human enhancement technology has the potential to provide many benefits such as increased awareness, intelligence and health. These benefits would be beneficial to soldiers in all circumstances but other benefits of human enhancement are more particular. For example, improving the speed, stamina and strength of soldiers is only likely to be of benefit when the soldiers are in close proximity to their enemy. As technology has advanced and political will for deploying soldiers has decreased, the trend in modern asymmetric warfare is to conduct operations against enemies from afar, such as with drones, which enables the killing of the enemy without the State endangering its own personnel. If this trend continues then so called super soldiers may not be determinative of which country has the elite fighting force, as suggested by Sewin.

Liam Halewood, Liverpool University

As a relative outsider to the field of law, I do find it quite astonishing sometimes just how ‘alien’ human law can seem to anyone who has experience working in other academic disciplines that are far more comfortable with future gazing and engaging with existential issues.

As the author here admits, the idea of enhancing the performance of soldiers has been around for a very long time. I find it strange then that the author raises the possibility that super soldiers may no longer resemble human beings (117) – as if this were a new problem, when these questions have existed for decades, if not centuries in other academic disciplines. I wonder then perhaps if this is a problem with law both as a discipline, and as an institution: its focus is far too insular, for it only considers the law-as-written and thus sees the world from a very distorted perspective.

To return then to some of the issues raised directly in this article, the most eye-raising from my own perspective is the question of whether supersoldiers are ‘inhumane’ weapons. This strikes me as somewhat strange given that asymmetry is essentially the primary aim of warfare: i.e. defeat the enemy as quickly and effectively as possible with minimum harm or damaged caused to one’s own. Is it really ‘inhumane’ to send in super soldiers to fight ‘normal’ soldiers when we already have a whole arsenal of weapons and technologies available to us that the ‘enemy’ doesn’t have access to? (This reminds me of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War where the Italians sent in tanks against an enemy, many of whom were armed with spears and/or bows and arrows). This leads to my second question: ‘inhumane’ for who?

Perhaps more widely here I think, the issue seems to be less about the ‘inhumanity’ of using supersoldiers, but the ‘un-humanity’ of using them – the way they represent an overt shift in the nature of ‘human’ warfare to something that goes beyond what we in modern day parlance come to understand as what it is to be human. And yet again, this is essentially nothing new – though it would appear to be so from a legal perspective. Is it not time then that law caught up with the rest of us?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

Sawin’s article seems a little odd to me. The whole premise is that super-soldiers with enhanced abilities would be ‘stronger, faster, tougher, better trained, and more durable’, and in doing so would be less empathetic and emotionless. This, apparently, would mean that despite having enhanced abilities, super-soldiers would be less-able to recognise civilians, and therefore would put them at greater risk. This seems ridiculous to me, as the law of armed conflict is a requirement for all military personnel to learn. Why then would personnel with enhanced abilities suddenly forget an essential part of their training? They would not. In fact, arguable a super-soldier with enhanced eye-sight and quicker cognitive abilities may be able to offer greater protection to civilians. For example, if carrying out a night-raid on a known terrorist house, a scared nineteen-year-old private may be unlikely to give anything that moves in the darkness much chance. A super-soldier may be able to see and recognise civilian presence quicker, resulting in not discharging their weapon and sparing a life that would otherwise have been collateral damage.

The article also questions whether super-soldiers would be banned under Art.35(2) of Additional Protocol 1, which states: ‘It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.’ Again, the premise for asking this question is again that somehow enhanced soldiers would have less ability to protect civilians. This is aside from the fact that prohibiting super-soldiers under this provision would require them to be reclassified as a weapon, which they would not be. Super-soldiers would be using the same weapons as ordinary soldiers (unless spectacularly heavy, for example), as so would not necessarily impart superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering any more than a non-enhanced soldier. Some would argue that better eye-sight and heart-rate control could make them more accurate over distance. But, that would also mean that current soldiers wearing corrective lenses, or having received laser eye-surgery also impart superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. The only reason I could think of where super-soldiers would impart more force on a particular individual than conventional soldiers would be in hand-to-hand combat. A conventional and super-soldier firing the same weapon at the same person would impart the same damage, but in hands on fighting, an enhanced soldier with superhuman strength and endurance could wipe the floor with a conventional enemy. But, that ignores the fact that an enhanced soldier could still stop when the enemy has been beaten, and take them prisoner.

The general principles of the law of armed conflict require fighters to protect civilians as much as possible. The fact that future fighters may have enhancements does not mean that these protections would be in danger. In fact, quicker decision making and sensory abilities could recognise civilian presence sooner, or target munitions more accurately, and offer greater civilian protection.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

First, the content of the paper was subpar. The author does not seem to understand what super soldiers or military human enhancement entails, and frequently confuses it with autonomous weapon systems. His vision of military human enhancement mainly seems to be based on science fiction comics, with no investigation into the current state of research and what governments are actually interested in and developing. He does not problematize or define the concepts he discusses, while human enhancement is very vague and ill-defined, and what falls under it is subject of intense debate. There are also so many different types of enhancements, some of which would be regulated by the Geneva Convention and some would not, with so many different effects, that you cannot generalize in the manner the author does to determine their legality.

Secondly, I am not a lawyer, but I do not understand his choice for exclusive focusing on Article 35 of Additional Protocol II, while there are so many more relevant principles at play, such as the principles of protection or distinction, as well as other legal instruments regulating the use of weapons such as the UN CCW. He barely problematizes the principles he actually discusses and does not present the multiple ways they can be applied, such as whether the SiRuS principle should be applied to weapons “of a nature to cause” or “calculated to cause”, as different countries interpret this principle differently and this could affect the legality substantially. His knowledge on the use of military technology and its role in warfare seems to be limited, and he dramatically simplifies concepts all the time ignoring the substantial discussion around them (e.g. when he says that the concept of informed consent does not apply for soldiers. Soldiers have that right, it is just difficult to say when they are free to consent or not, due to the hierarchical structure of the army).

On a final note, the way the article is written is problematic. He frequently cites conspiracy websites; the tone is heavily sensationalized (e.g. when he describes all unmanned systems in use by the US army between 2002 and 2010 as “enhanced war-fighting machines”, while the majority of these are very simple remote-controlled bomb disposal robots); and when he cites references to support his claims that actually argue very different things (e.g. when he says that Lin et al claim that “military soldiers are the one aspect that can determine the fate of warfare”, while they actually say on that specific page that “as impressive as our weapon systems may be, one of the weakest links—as well as the most valuable—in armed conflicts continues to be warfighters themselves”, which is something very different). Finally, the historical examples he brings up are often factually incorrect, for instance when he describes the Thirty Year War, and they have little to no relevance. These aspects do not reinforce trust in the message of the article.

Maaike Verbruggen, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Let us know what you think!

Wired for War – Singer

Wired for War by P.W. Singer (2009, Penguin books) is one of the most important books in security circles over the past 10 years. It is a milestone account of the state of technology up to 2009 and considered so many things that were at the cutting edge of innovation, that many of them still haven’t happened yet.


Without further ado, here are our thoughts:

Wired for War is an excellent book, and a comprehensive introduction to the impact of technology, and specifically robotics, in modern warfare. Some questions that arise from the text:

  1. iRobot’s mission statement (27) is somewhat disturbing, given their military links. Do we run the risk here of creating too much of a psychological distance between a product and its function?*
  1. It is interesting to note that books such as Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game appear in so many professional reading programs and military training courses (see 151 and 156). What are the potential ramifications of reading such books from a military perspective?
  1. What role does fiction and the arts have in the widespread acceptance of technology and military strategy? As with Q1., do we run the risk of ‘dumbing down’ the ethical, moral and social implications of these technologies? Too much emphasis on the rule of cool and ‘crash, bang, whallop’ and not enough intellectual engagement?
  1. The author suggests that robots can potentially reduce the instances of war crimes (393–408). But, with machine learning, will this remain the case? What about robots used on the other side? Will robots place equal value on the lives of friends and enemies alike?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

*Interesting related article: Dennis Hayes, ‘The Cloistered Work-Place: Military Electronics Workers Obey and Ignore’ in Cyborg Worlds: The Military Information Society, ed. by Les Levidow and Kevin Robins (London: Free Association Books, 1989).


Wired for War is probably one of, if not the, most important book for scholars of military technologies. Because this book was so forward thinking, and considered things really on the extremes of technological capability when it was written, many of the things that were prophesied as coming soon still haven’t appeared.

I wanted to draw attention to a passage in the book (272-276) which considers how artificial intelligence could be used to predict the incidents of terrorist attacks and other crimes. If the preparatory activities for attacks/crimes can be subject to data pattern analysis, there is a question here as to what to do with this information?

Arresting somebody for conspiracy to commit a crime of attack seems preferable, but the evidence is often difficult to bring together when the intended crime has not yet taken place. Deterring would-be criminals from carrying out the crime is another option. In a similar way to placing police cars outside banks when tipped-off of a possible robbery, an increased police presence at a site of planned crime/attack can have a deterring effect. Yet, we now commonly see determined and highly motivated terrorists carry out their actions despite knowing that they will suffer either arrest or a bullet from an armed response officer. It is certainly a difficult issue.

Recently, UKIP (a far-right UK political party) suggested the internment of terrorist suspects without trial. Yet, we know from experience with the IRA and al-Qaeda that such treatment can be used by those groups as a massive recruiting tool. It seems that the other option down this route of taking action before an actual attack happens is killing the potential attacker as happens with US/Israeli/UK/Russian targeted killings. If we think about the potential future implication of AI systems performing statistical analysis to essentially state that an individual is about to commit a terrorist atrocity, this could then result in a strike from an autonomous drone. We are well into the territory of a worrisome future with this. But, it is possible. This certainly raises questions about how much ‘meaningful human control’ society wants in its counterterrorism.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


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