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Ethics and New War Gadgets

While the interest of warfighters is to acquire new capabilities and achieve the objectives set by commanders with the lowest cost, there are a series of ethical and legal voices that raise concerns about innovating on the battlefield.

“When necessity is allowed to override moral commitments, the result is a normative incoherency that undermines the traditional rules of international behavior, thus increasing the likelihood of war and placing citizens’ lives and well-being in jeopardy,” explained Anthony Pfaff, researcher at the U.S. Army War College.

Not all weapons are allowed, and this was addressed in Article 22 of the Hague Regulations, stating that “the right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) establishes four basic criteria when employing force:

  • The principle of humanity
  • The principle of distinction between civilians
  • and combatants, and between civilian objects
  • and military objectives
  • The principle of proportionality
  • The principle of military necessity











Beyond these criteria, voices warning that not all arrivals at the battlefield are welcome state that there should be limits to what can be used.

“To avoid this self-defeating dynamic, states are obligated, at a minimum, to take up the problem of disruptive technologies, even if, in the end, they determine that particular technologies are not worth the moral cost,” Pfaff wrote in a research note.

This means that even if a technology complies with the four criteria stated by the ICRC, there should be another round of thinking about the kind of actions this may allow other actors to take if a new technology is employed.

Additionally, the Wassenaar Arrangement, the international regime regulating dual-use technologies, has a set of criteria explaining which technologies should be limited due to their potential to be used as weapons.

“Dual-use goods and technologies to be controlled are those which are major or key elements for the indigenous development, production, use or enhancement of military capabilities,” according to one of its founding documents.

The item can be limited if it can be clearly defined and is not already available for use on the market.

For software, similar criteria apply, such as applications that are generally available to the public. These are sold by any means—downloads or otherwise—or are in the public domain and therefore impossible to restrict, among other issues.

The international forum will analyze each case and will continue to update its policies.