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Remote warfare: the chemical danger

A fusion of drone systems and chemical agents is set to transform the landscape of combat for states and non-state actors alike.

Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance system at Farnborough 2010. Anguskirk/Flickr. Some rights reserved. Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance system at Farnborough 2010. Anguskirk/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The Baghdad government's success in retaking the city of Ramadi from ISIS forces has been widely reported in western media. At the same time the picture on the ground is nothing like as simple as is often portrayed. Even as the victory was being celebrated, it was becoming clear that ISIS elements still controlled several areas around the Iraqi city.

These elements have proved very difficult to dislodge, with some even able to undertake offensive actions against government positions. At the same time, other ISIS contingents were attacking government forces and local militias in the western Iraqi town of Haditha. Such developments, far from signalling an end to the war, emphasise how distant that prospect remains.

This is equally the case in the international context. ISIS continues to expand its activities elsewhere, notably in Libya. Its Libyan actions, in turn, form part of a rise in Islamist paramilitary activity across much of northern Africa. Behind the positive headlines about Ramadi and elsewhere, United States planners are intent on targeting ISIS and other groups across a range of fronts. Africa in particular is witnessing a substantial increase in Washington's military involvement.

The military slippage

Much of this increase is focused on "remote warfare", using special forces and armed drones. These forms of combat – as chronicled and analysed by the London-based Remote Control Project – are themselves continually adapting. Armed drones, for example, are now able to do more than their commonly understood task of firing lethal ordnance such as Hellfire missiles.

A new report from the project by Michael Crowley – Tear Gassing by Remote Control: the development and promotion of remotely operated means of delivering or dispersing riot control agents – is one of the first to identify the way that drones are being integrated with so-called "riot-control agents" in ways that would permit a wide range of uses, from policing actions to military use. 

One of the report's main concerns is the question of what is and isn’t allowed under the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997. The report notes: “The use of riot control agents (RCAs) as a method of warfare is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Convention, however, permits the employment of such chemicals for law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes, provided they are used in 'types and quantities' consistent with such purposes.”

This careful dissection of a decidedly ambiguous area suggests that instruments supposedly intended only for the control of civil order might become part of a wider military strategy. This should cause considerable concern at a time when the combined efforts of governments and commercial enterprises are able to synthesise remote-delivery systems and new incapacitating psychoactive chemicals.

Crowley’s report is a very useful addition to the currently sparse literature on a seriously under-researched subject within the arms-control community. An even more thorough monograph by the same author elaborates on this evolving area of study: Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and their Means of Delivery (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). While the report focuses on the relationship to remotely-controlled systems and their proliferation, the book goes into much greater depth – not least in a hugely useful and eye-opening 80-page section on the extraordinary range of developments in riot control and incapacitating agents now under way.   

The author then examines the implications of this inadequately recognised problem from several legal perspectives (international humanitarian law, human rights law, and international criminal law). He also looks at the intriguing possibility of applying the United Nations drug-control conventions to these weapons.

The coming threat

The big picture here is the proliferation of what are assumed to be public-order control systems into military dimensions where they can be readily used by private military and security companies. Beyond this, if recent experience is anything to go by, is the further spread of these systems into the hands of non-state political actors. Both these processes are still in their early stages.

In the past couple of years, extreme movements in the Middle East have proved able to adopt drone technologies. The fact that a large number of governments are engaged in developing military drones makes certain that these will become both common and available beyond state or international control. Michael Crowley's important work adds the perspective of what amount to new forms of chemical warfare.

At present, any effective process to try to control military-drone proliferation is striking by its absence. A huge question mark also hangs over the application of the Chemical Weapons Convention to riot control and incapacitating agents. Either limitation is worrying on its own. Put them together, and the difficulty becomes acute.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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