The Era of Shadow Wars

James Denseiow

The assassination of Iranian scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was not the first death in the unofficial state of conflict between Iran and Israel yet its methods fit into a wider global strategic shift in the nature of war and peace that it might come to symbolise.

This shift was set out well in an important speech that hasn’t perhaps had the attention it deserved by the UK Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, in September of this year. Speaking at “Policy Exchange” General Carter launched the Integrated Operating Concept. As the most senior official in the UK military his was not a academic description of the world but rather the framing by which one of the world’s largest militaries plans to operate in future.

He set out how the era of war and peace is no more. This is largely due to the huge cost of conventional conflict and the unlikelihood of success certainly for smaller states facing military behemoths like the USA. As General Carter explained; “none of our rivals can afford to go to war as we define it. They want to win below that threshold”.

So if war is never to be declared, militaries such as the UK have to be prepared – via the integrated operating concept – of adopting what General Carter cited as a posture of “competition” as an addition to “the traditional deterrence model of comprehension, credibility, capability and communication”.

Moving from a policy of deterrence where States focus on building up military capabilities of even game changing weapons like nuclear missiles, to accepting that conflict may occur in a perpetual sense at a level of competition brings us back to the killing of Fakhrizadeh.

Whilst there has been no official acknowledgment of who committed the assassination analysts point to a State actor. Indeed, reports emerged some days after the incident that was originally reported as gunmen ambushing the vehicle to the attack being conducted by a satellite-controlled machine-gun with “artificial intelligence” according to a Revolutionary Guards commander.

If, and it is a big ‘if’, it is true that AI killed Fakhrizadeh it would fit into a pattern of increased reliance of standoff weaponry by the larger global military actors to pursue their national security strategies. The rise and rise of the armed drone is a case in point and whilst there is debate about the legality of the US using drones to kill its enemies anywhere across the globe it is increasingly a reality.

Great military powers justifying to themselves an embrace of ‘shadow wars’ or lethal competition below the level of official conflict comes with a host of consequences. It is of course a challenge to international law and norms. If states don’t even acknowledge that they conducted lethal action, then who is accountable to any collateral damage that occurs in the attack? If civilians are killed by mistake or due to their proximity to a military target, what methods of redress do their families have?

Using AI would appear to take tactics around remote warfare to a whole new level. At least armed drones have pilots who make the decision to fire a missile and take a life. Human beings are accountable for those actions/ Are we nearing a point in which AI and algorithms could replace them and what would that mean for our global security architecture.

Also is General Carter in a sense admitting that we are entering an era of ‘forever wars’ in which there will never be a conclusion or an end but rather is a never-ending struggle? This changes the way we see the narrative of war and peace – as a historical view – versus a world of endless competition.

It raises lots of questions about consistency. Many have speculated about what would have happened in Iran was linked to an AI assassination of an Israeli scientist inside Israel. We still await a sense as to if Iran will respond to the attack and if so how. In a sense the lack of predictability makes the world more dangerous and the lack of clear rules as to what constitutes conflict or what definitions of acceptable versus unacceptable competitive acts are. In a sense we are writing a new unofficial rule book as we go and the Fakhrizadeh killing may represent a significant chapter in the story of ‘Shadow Wars’ in and of itself.

by: James Denseiow