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Research Questions

  1. What is the extant and emerging body of work on morality in relation to armed conflict and war in the future operating environment?
  2. Is there any apparent 'disconnect' between new ways of fighting and traditional notions of morality surrounding war and armed conflict?
  3. How are insights on the moral principles challenged by the new ways of fighting and what are the high-level implications of these challenges?
  4. What specific areas are currently underexplored in the body of work on the subject of morality in cross-domain conflict?

This study was commissioned to examine the academic debate pertaining to the moral landscape of cross-domain conflict (i.e. a conflict that spans two or more military domains). The study: considers the body of work on morality and armed conflict in the future operating environment and provides insights on the ways in which new ways of fighting may challenge traditional moral principles.

The study considered two emerging technologies (cyber and autonomous systems) to derive practical insights on the new technologies' challenge to traditional thinking about morality. The work involved a systematic review of relevant literature, a programme of interviews and a one-day workshop with academic experts. The study finds that: the majority view among consulted experts was that existing moral frameworks and principles continue to apply; there is a considerable disparity in the legal interpretations of the terms 'armed attack' and 'harm'. Theorists generally agree that there is no particular moral barrier to responding to a non-kinetic attack — once confirmed as constituting an 'armed attack' — with kinetic force if this is considered the most appropriate course of action under the specific circumstances. Revisionist approaches to just war theory challenge the legal definition of combatants since it does not account for the moral intentions of individuals party to a conflict. Under this line of thinking, non-combatants may render themselves liable to harm if their actions infer support for an 'unjust war'. Cyber and autonomous systems were considered to present challenges to a number of the principles underpinning traditional moral and legal frameworks.

Key Findings

Existing moral frameworks have not outlived their usefulness.

  • The majority view among academic experts was that existing moral frameworks and principles continue to apply. That said, some advocate for a new interpretation of existing principles or amendment to or a confirmation of underpinning definitions.

There is a considerable disparity in the legal interpretations of the terms 'armed attack' and 'harm'.

  • Significant disparity exists in the legal interpretations applied to the term 'armed attack' (which is critical in determining the legality of a resort to force) and in deliberations regarding what constitutes (sufficient) 'harm' (including both physical and non-physical effects). This is particularly contentious in relation to cyber.

There was general consensus among those consulted that there appears no moral obligation to respond 'in kind'.

  • Theorists generally agree that there is no particular moral barrier to responding to a non-kinetic attack — once confirmed as constituting an 'armed attack' — with kinetic force if this is considered the most appropriate course of action under the specific circumstances.

Under a revisionist line of thinking, the legal definition of combatants does not sufficiently account for moral intentions of individuals involved in conflict.

  • Revisionist approaches to just war theory challenge the legal distinction between combatants and non-combatants since they do not account for the moral intentions of individuals party to a conflict. Under this line of thinking, non-combatants may render themselves liable to harm if their actions infer their support for an 'unjust war'.

Recommendations

  • A greater emphasis on policy development in relation to cyber and to autonomous systems would help focus on the specific morality issues associated with the UK's likely use of these capabilities in the future.
  • Reflecting the shift away from state agency to a focus on individuals as moral actors, MOD should take steps to ensure that morality is embedded in every individual service member, supported by an organisational 'moral culture'. For instance, MOD should ensure that training techniques used to embed moral and lawful conduct in service personnel explore the specificities of the new challenges.
  • Examination of potential changes in the future moral operating landscape could be integrated into wider horizon-scanning and strategic force development work to assess defence planning against moral assumptions and to generate a more robust evidence base to inform decision-making.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Academic debate

  • Chapter Three

    Case studies

  • Chapter Four

    Key conclusions

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) through the Defence Human Capability Science and Technology Centre (DHCSTC) framework and conducted by RAND Europe.

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