Responsible military networks
With the introduction of new information technologies, military personnel are increasingly working together in large networks. This project examined how to ensure socially-responsible operations within this context.
Network-enabled operations bring together formerly separate military practises. There are three pitfalls to this: the development of tunnel vision, the misinterpretation of visual data and the prevention of streamlined communication, the result of which can be incidents involving civilian casualties. Those involved therefore need to be made aware that new technologies unite formerly separate military practises, and that the technologies are not neutral. Through training, military personnel can be better prepared for network-enabled operations. Such training should teach the differences between practises, the skills required to use information, and moral decision-making skills.
A tragic incident took place in Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2009, when a decision was made to carry out an airstrike on two hijacked fuel trucks, based on live images transmitted from a helicopter flying over the location. Thermal images of people around the truck were seen as black dots on the screen and interpreted by the commander as a threat. It later turned out that most of these were locals who had approached the abandoned trucks, therefore civilians.
Main pitfalls to using the new technologies
This is one example of the new type of operations, in which live images of the situation on the ground are used to make decisions elsewhere. In an article in the journal Militaire Spectator, the researchers explain the three main pitfalls to using the new technologies:
- The development of a “predator view”, or tunnel vision. This occurs if observers (a) focus so much on what they are seeing on the screen that they lose sight of what is happening elsewhere, and (b) they are unaware that the view through the camera lens does not show the whole picture. Decisions are then made based on limited information.
- The misinterpretation of visual data. It is not always possible to distinguish between military personnel and civilians on thermal and other images, or to see whether they are carrying weapons or non-military equipment (such as a news reporter carrying a camera).
- The prevention of streamlined communication. Military personnel on the ground need to respond quickly and take action. Should they bomb the target or not? In network-enabled operations, these kinds of decisions become even more complex, simply because there are more people involved. It is also further complicated by the fact that these networks are often international, with different partners following different procedures.
According to the researchers, the underlying problem is twofold:
- Assumed clear practices. Too easily, the assumption is made that it is as clear in the new situation as in the old who is responsible for making decisions and when, and according to which rules. However, this is not the case, because the previously separate military “practises” – relating to different roles in the armed forces – now have to work together in the network.
- Assumed neutral technology. People are insufficiently aware of the fact that the network technology is not neutral, but that it can influence the decisions being made. An example is a technology that is designed to make red lights flash in certain situations, suggesting danger. This can influence the decisions that are made.
Making people aware of these pitfalls is the first step that needs to be taken to offset the disadvantages of network-enabled military operations. Providing better training for military personnel can be an important part of this. Examples of subjects to be included in such training are:
- Knowledge of different practises. This does not mean knowing every practise in great detail, but being aware of what is specific to your own practise and that this differs from partners’ practises. The aim is to know the possibilities and the limits of your own capacities, and to know when a partner may be better able to fulfil a role.
- Information interpretation skills. Should military personnel working in a particular function and area of practice interpret visual information from a technical, tactical or strategic point of view, for example?
- Moral decision-making skills. The researchers developed an ethical framework based on relationality. This framework provides some pointers for military personnel in making moral judgements, for example by preventing black and white thinking (“us vs them”) and encouraging empathy.
In some cases, conclude the researchers, it may in fact be better not to operate as part of a large network, or not to include everyone in the network. A commander, for example, needs to maintain an overview of everything that is going on. In such cases, grainy, low-resolution images may be no more than a distraction, but very useful for a forward air-controller guiding pilots.
military technology, networked operations, information technology, pitfalls, pitfalls, communication, data interpretation, training, decision making, collaboration, risksOfficial project title: