As society is becoming more technologically advanced, so too is the military. Remote- operated killing machines and cyber warfare are no longer science fiction. While technology is essential to support national security organizations in keeping the country safe, it also raises some interesting ethical questions. In this article, we take a look at some of the recent developments in military technologies and strategies, and examine their implications.
Technology in the Military
Technology has long been an essential part of warfare; the country with the latest tech usually wins the most wars. Today is no exception, with new discoveries and techniques changing the military landscape. The United States military currently uses drones or unmanned ariel vehicles (AEVs), to provide surveillance and launch missiles. Technology has advanced to the point where “killer drones” called Switchblades can now fit in a backpack. The U.S. partnered with a private company to send 100 of these to the Ukraine in 2022. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has showcased a number of interesting technological developments. One includes an Uber-like app, created by Ukrainian software developers in partnership with British mapping companies, that helps deploy weapons in 1-2 minutes; a process that traditionally takes at least 20. In his conversation with entrepreneur and AI expert Russ Bodnyk, RSnake discussed this app, called GIS Arta (aka GIS Art for Artillery). RSnake explained there was an incident in which GIS Arta was used to deploy a number of bombs to a bad target using old map data, but with high accuracy. RSnake expressed concerns about the future of this technology. “This is one small step away from being fully automated,” he said. But technological developments don’t only affect weapons on the battlefield. The internet has created new ways to fight, including information warfare and cyber warfare. Information warfare involves distributing propaganda or disinformation. As Arsalan Bilal wrote in NATO Review, “It is much more feasible to, let’s say, sponsor and fan disinformation in collaboration with non-state actors than it is to roll tanks into another country’s territory or scramble fighter jets in its airspace.” Cyber warfare involves disrupting an enemy’s society by hacking into the networks of important businesses or essential services. The U.S. is dedicating more resources to both information warfare and cyber warfare. There is even a cyber warfare battalion in the army. The Ukraine has also used cyber warfare in its fight against Russia by recruiting volunteers. They are named the Ukrainian Cyber Army, though they are not formally part of the Ukrainian army, and don’t report to anyone. While many people herald these developments as a necessary next step in an increasingly advanced world, and point to possible reductions in U.S. casualties, others worry about the safety of these new technologies.
New Technologies, New Vulnerabilities
Advancements in technology also make the military vulnerable. In his conversation with
RSnake, Frank Artes, a cybersecurity expert and former police officer, explained he was
able to discover where members of a U.S. special operations team lived by tracking their
cell phone data. “It was a good case in point that the device you carry around with you
will tell on you,” he said. If Artes could discover this information, so could enemies of
Since hackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, it’s also possible that military
secrets could fall into the wrong hands. Last year, hackers gained access to 10
terabytes of data from militaries in Mexico, Chile, El Salvador, Peru, and Columbia.
Quantum computers also have the potential to break the encryption used in current
cyber security systems.
Ethics of New Technologies in Warfare
The latest technologies also raise a number of ethical questions, whether they are used
on the battlefield, or off.
On the Battlefield
On one hand, using drones instead of pilots keeps American personnel safe at home
while missiles are being deployed thousands of miles away. Drones have also been
used in non-military settings to drop off much-needed medicine, or in search and rescue
However, there have also been ethical problems associated with drone warfare such as
high civilian casualties. This technology has also enabled the U.S. to strike in countries
it wasn’t technically at war with – including Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.
With drone technology becoming smaller and easier to use, the question of it falling into
the wrong hands becomes an issue. It’s one thing for the U.S. to send missile drones
that can fit in backpacks to the Ukraine, but the same technology could also be used by
Many organizations are raising red flags regarding these advances, with Google and the
European Union calling for a ban on tech research related to taking human lives.
Cyber warfare raises its own ethical conundrums. With hackers becoming increasingly
sophisticated, the U.S. military must keep on top of recent technological developments
to defend itself. Hacks like the one seen in South America could also happen in the U.S.
Cyber warfare is also an offensive strategy, and could be an effective way to cripple an
enemy. Instead of being killed on the battlefield, American soldiers could bring an
enemy nation to its knees by, say, turning off their power.
On the flipside, techniques like this could disproportionately affect civilian lives. Artes
said it’s one thing for a country like the U.S. to target a munitions factory in another
country as part of cyber warfare. This is an appropriate military target. But, he explained,
it’s easy for the scope of these targets to widen. Is it ethical to target a power station,
for example, leaving many citizens without light or heat?
Another aspect of advanced technology in the military is the necessity of public-private partnerships to facilitate new discoveries. The Switchblades (“killer drones”), for example, are made by a private company called AeroVironment Inc. The U.S. military has a history of working with private companies; Blackwater Securities being one high-profile example. The government is also working with tech firms to develop 5G in something called the National Spectrum Consortium. Proponents of these partnerships say the U.S. military could never keep up with changing technology without the help of private companies. By working with the private sector, they say, the government gets access to the latest technology. Others are more wary of these relationships. Just how trustworthy are private companies? It is a well-known fact that many programs have flaws in them, also called zero-day vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers, or the companies themselves. What happens when programs that protect access to nuclear codes have back doors built into them?
Cyber Letters of Marque
In his conversation with Artes, RSnake discussed cyber letters of marque. He explained
the idea originated when actual piracy on the seas was a problem for many countries.
Governments began issuing letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to attack
another country’s ships. The privateers were allowed to keep a substantial cut of the
loot they stole, as long as they gave the rest of the bounty, along with sensitive
documents, to their government.
This was beneficial to the privateers, who would no longer have to worry about falling
into a criminal category, and to the government who could use the privateer’s activities
for their own benefit.
In the wake of cyber attacks like the Solarwinds data breach, some people are calling
for cyber letters of marque to be issued to hackers. In this case, hackers would be
licensed to attack a specific target with the government’s blessing. RSnake postulated
they would get a substantial cut of any financial gains.
Artes and RSnake agreed that cyber letters of marque are likely to be implemented. “I
think this is only the tip of the iceberg. I think that as time progresses, we are going to
see ways of leveraging and implementing this,” said Artes.
They both, however, expressed concern about the idea. RSnake summed it up, “You rely
entirely on the ethics of your team to do the right thing, which is a little dangerous
because these people have already said that they’re cool with being pirates, effectively.”
Ukrainian Cyber Army
RSnake and Artes also discussed the Ukrainian Cyber Army. To fight against Russian
invasion, the Ukraine issued a call in a tweet for volunteer hackers around the world to
aid in cyber warfare against Russia. The tweet provided a link to a telegram group
which, at the time this article was written in Vice, had 25,000 subscribers.
The hackers have claimed responsibility for an attack that took down RuTube (Russia’s
YouTube) for three days, compromised the company’s internal data, and prevented
some employees from using their access cards. In some cases, people were locked in
server rooms. The Cyber Army also claims to have disrupted pharmacies and a payment
service provider. For the most part, the hackers have used Distributed Denial of Service
(DDoS), flooding servers with traffic to prevent legitimate users from accessing sites.
Artes and RSnake worried it would be difficult to attribute attacks with an organization
like this. “It gets messy fast,” said Artes.
Where U.S. cyber warfare is conducted by trained military professionals who follow
strategic orders, the Ukraine cyber army is entirely voluntary. Will these 25,000 volunteers make good decisions about what to target and how? Without knowing who they are, it’s difficult to tell.
In the rush to acquire the latest technology, it can be difficult to stop long enough to consider future implications. But stopping to think too long can make it easy for others to rush ahead in what continues to be a global race for technological dominance. The only thing we know for sure is that war looks much different than it did even 10-15 years ago. To find out more about cybersecurity, the Ukrainian Cyber Army and using tech to decloak special operations, tune in to RSnake’s conversation with Frank Artes. Or check out RSnake’s conversation with Russ Bodnyk on the capabilities of artificial intelligence, including on the battlefield.