Has technological progress made war more humane?

Precision Guided Munitions and the Monopoly of Discrimination

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

20 Pages



Technology and war

What revolution? The image of the costless war

The myth of the surgical strike – has PGMs made war (seem) more humane?

Who has the power to discriminate? Privileging actors through access to PGMs

What is enabling the PGMs? Neutralization of the distinction between civilians and military targets

Monopolists of War. How PGMs promote increased warfare



Technology and war

Technological progress and the way of conducting warfare have been two inseparable entities since the dawn of man. (Semi)Civilian technologies have been used to gain the upper hand in combat, whilst developments in military technology have led to “spill­over” effects of technology into civil society. Providing an answer to whether technological development has made warfare more humane cannot be done unless we choose a narrower focus. With the coming of the age of information technology, the triumph of capitalism and an evermore ground gaining globalisation of cultures and economies, the boundaries between civilian and military technology have eroded, and the world’s military super power has 90% of it’s technical installations implemented one way or another in civil society (Pretorius 2003:169). It has thus become much more difficult, both in legal and moral terms, to clearly define where the military sphere ends and civil society begins.

The following paper will examine one of the more recently militarily implemented technological advances, namely precision guided munitions (PGMs), which have become an integral part of the strategy of today’s undisputed technological forerunner in military hardware, the U.S. Armed Forces. This technology uses both high-end military technology as well as civilian technology, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) to navigate by. One of the aims of this paper is to show how these changes in technology is an indicator of a more humane focus on “our” soldier, i.e. a decreasing willingness to put these soldiers’ life on the line. It will be argued that the use of such weaponry as PGMs, seemingly, in a techno-fetishist way, has made war more humane, but that the rhetoric surrounding them also has had the effect of privileging the wielders of these in a highly asymmetrical way.

What revolution? The image of the costless war

Implementing new technology in the military sector has always been governed by a few, but rather persistent, rationales; to gain a technical, tactical advantage over the enemy, to decrease the cost of war as much as possible and to make combat more effective - as well economically as time-related. In the recent years there’s been a growing popular tendency for a further concern of the military, namely a concern to lower the number of innocent deaths in conflicts - i.e. to heighten the discrimination of weapons and warriors. One such innovation that has been celebrated as being the epiphany of that polity is the PGM-technology. Praised for its pinpoint accuracy, the technology has not only been embraced by the general public (qua such images as the 1991 Gulf War), but is also said to have marked the emergence of a new Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) (Beier 2006:267)1. An RMA can be defined as “a major change in the nature of warfare brought about by the innovative application of new technologies which, combined with dramatic changes in military doctrine and operational and organizational concepts fundamentally alters the character and conduct of military operations” (Marshall 2008). The 1991 Gulf War displays that the conception that you can hit any target anywhere without jeopardizing the lives of your soldiers, is exactly what has led the American military-complex to believe, that it can conduct “costless”, and eventually “costfree”, wars, and thus emphasises that an RMA has actually taken place.

Those who advocate the use of PGMs argue that the ability to pinpoint military targets more accurately, will lead to fewer civilian deaths, qua a greater discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, and that this is a more humane way of conducting war. Furthermore, the soldier will be less exposed to the dangers of war when cruising at an altitude of 40.000 feet above a warzone, than he would be if deployed on the ground (Meilinger 2001:78-79). It is certainly hard to disagree with this latter notion, but there is reason to believe that the former one deserves more attention.

The myth of the surgical strike - has PGMs made war (seem) more humane?

Are the PGMs really that sophisticated in distinguishing combatants from non­combatants? The hallmark of the PGM is that, unlike its “dumb” predecessor, it contains a sophisticated sensor and control system, such as an onboard computer and adjustable flight fins, that allows for a significantly higher percentage of accuracy. The precision is achieved via the use of either laser guidance or GPS-technology (in the former case a spotter is needed on the ground to designate the target) (Global Security 2008). In either case, the bombs need to have assigned targets to them, information that is provided by various sources of intelligence (Pretorius 2003:171), and as such, the bombs are not any smarter than the people feeding them with this information. If the information is wrong and we end up pulverizing a hospital full of civilians, there is no doubt that the PGM did its job, but with a grotesque result - in the words of Mr. Bigum, Lockhead Martins Vice President; “Probably the weakest area is knowledge finding the targets” (Bigum quoted in Hunter 2004:19). Likewise, even if the information is correct and we actually do have e.g. a terrorist’s hideout in the crosshair, there is always going to be a factor of uncertainty present: How many civilians, how many non-combatants may be residing within the complex that is about to be destroyed? In this way, the PGMs can only be said to be peripherally discriminatory: there is still absolute non­discrimination in the area of impact.

Even the idea of PGMs as infallible devices that never miss their target, has been criticized as being a purely rhetorical myth - a product of the early nineties’ “Nintendo Wars”, as Beier puts it (Beier 2006:267). The PGMs’ capabilities have been largely exaggerated by a few, but very impressive, images, such as the bombing of the Iraqi Air Force Headquarters, where laser-guided bombs found their way through the bunkers weak spot, videlicet the ventilation shaft (Schneider 1997:12, Smith 1995:38). The untold story here is the one of the PGMs’ technical weaknesses, such as the lasers being easily disrupted by atmospheric disturbances and the GPS-guidance being vulnerable to spoofing or jamming (Hunter 2004:20). PGMs are undeniably more accurate than “dumb bombs”, but there is no need to treat them as if they where “...as mighty as Zeus' thunderbolts” (Hunter 2004:19).

Whether war being humane or not, is furthermore not only a question of saving a greater (more innocent?) number. There is also the perspective of individual dignity to consider. The 1991 Gulf War showed us pictures from cameras mounted on PGMs, smashing into buildings, delivering a “Just package”. “What we do not see, of course, is the perspective of the targets and of those who reside within” (Beier 2006:268), as Beier wisely notices. The hypnotizing effect this point-of-view perspective has had on the general public of the western world, can be seen as an indicator of ignorance to the “darker” side of technology, the so-called techno-fetishism. The role of the individual is played down, replaced by an excitement of the new technological marvels - what we see is “sanitized and profoundly depoliticized” (Beier 2006:269)” - and it is doubtful whether such an approach to warfare is more humane. In fact, this rhetorical enabling of the PGMs can be argued to be the very essence of the new RMA (Beier 2006:273). It is through the strict managing of spaces that the framing and selection of footage of PGMs is carried out. The public technological fascination with these devices is thus primarily based on a rhetorical imagination, because what we have seen of these weapons, reflect choices made by someone else than the viewer or, in the words of Beier, “deliberate acts of composition” (Beier 2006:269). An idiosyncratic feature of this rhetorical imagination is that it is accepted as an authentic representation of a non­existent truth - it is a copy of an original that does not really exist, in Jean Baudrillard’s words (1994), a so called simulacrum. What is remembered about such wars as the 1991 Iraq war, is not the battlefield itself, but the weapons and their capabilities. The way such a real battlefield has disappeared, has led Patricia Owens (2003) to conclude that “Something ‘elementarily human’ apparently went missing with [it]” (Owens 2003:612). The outcome is not only a reproduction of legitimacy of the use of PGM- missiles, but to the idea of warfare itself.

Who has the power to discriminate? Privileging actors through access to PGMs

The more precise and accurate bombs are, the more they are likely to comply with the moral and legal criteria of Jus in Bello, or more specifically, the doctrine of non­combatant discrimination. The fact that there are only a relatively small number of countries that have access to the PGM-technology, due to either economical or technical issues2, seems to cause some complications in this respect. One of the key aspects of modern wars is the fact that they are often highly asymmetrical, both on the battlefield, as well as in the area of technology. This has led to the belief that the use of PGMs against an opponent that has little or no possibilities of responding to such an attack in a symmetrical way, could result in perverse uses of human beings, such as chaining captured enemy soldiers to military buildings or forcing civilians inside structures of military importance for the use as human shields (Dunlap 1999). Cornering a desperate enemy in order to give him as few choices as possible can thus be an extremely poor decision if the choices purely are over surrender or sacrifice of civilians – not all, but certainly some of today’s leaders of deprived, corrupt and despotic countries, would not hesitate in making the latter choice. The effect of such a response is an undermining and partly neutralization of the PGM-effect. What this implies in regards to the humane aspect of warfare, is that war may now have become even more brutal and inhumane, because non-combatants are now actively being used in order to protect military structure, rather than suffering being unfortunate collateral damage. In this light, the claim that “recent technological advances in weaponry and intelligence have significantly reduced casualties among both attackers and attacked” (Meilinger 2001:78) has a hollow ring to it, since the number of potential targets (attacked) in fact has risen, as we shall see in the following section. This is an inherent paradoxical feature of such technology, that the intention of reducing casualties (making war more humane) forces the enemy to resort to violations of international moral norms, thus paving the way for a “new barbarism in warfare” (Dunlap 1999).


1 For a general introduction to RMAs, see McKitrick et al. 1995

2 Accordingly, an estimate suggests the number to currently be nineteen (Mucciolo 2008)

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Has technological progress made war more humane?
Precision Guided Munitions and the Monopoly of Discrimination
University of Manchester  (Political Science)
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ISBN (Book)
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technology, pgms, wmd, war, terrorism, empire, human rights, discrimination, baudrillard, dunlap, security, luhmann, walzer, conetta, bombs, missiles, precision, conflicts, monopoly
Quote paper
Soren Andersen (Author), 2009, Has technological progress made war more humane?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/146959


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