Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, now in its fourth year, has rendered impossible the pretence that Riyadh’s arms purchases are mostly decorative. However, as Spain’s new leftist government has discovered, it is one thing to take the moral high ground where selling weapons to Riyadh is concerned – but quite another to maintain it.
Citing concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen, the Spanish government cancelled a €9.2m sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, which had been agreed by Spain’s previous, more conservative, administration. Shortly afterwards, Spain reinstated the sale. It does not appear coincidental that Saudi Arabia has a €1.8bn order in place for five corvettes from Spain’s state-owned military shipbuilder Navantia, a venture that will generate an estimated 6,000 jobs.
“The reality,” says Elisabeth Braw, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, “is that Saudi Arabia is a huge importer of arms – the world’s second largest – and that gives it leverage.”
It seems that when Saudi Arabia places arms orders, it also buys the ability to encourage western democracies to overcome any squeamishness about dealing with Riyadh. “This about-turn is a clear illustration of that,” says Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the Arms Transfers & Military Expenditure Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “Though it is important to say that Spain is honouring an agreement already in place, it doesn’t mean they won’t be more restrictive with new deals.”
Several countries, including Germany, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, have halted or restricted arms sales to Saudi Arabia and/or its coalition partners in Yemen. Saudi Arabia may yet discover that there’s a limit to how much indulgence its money can buy.
The role of the sharpshooter – the best marksman in a military battalion – has evolved as much as the nature of combat over the past century. The Canadian Armed Forces Small Arms Concentration, which took place in Ottawa in September, is a storied annual gathering of some of the best military sharpshooters in the world. Established in 1868 as British forces in Canada transferred military control to the then fledgling armed forces, the best marksmen were brought together to defend the new nation. Today, it is viewed as one of the most innovative military exercises in its field, largely because of the “dynamic” range of mock-hostile environments intended to replicate the pressures and unpredictability of war. More than 330 sharpshooters from across Canada – as well as Australia, the Netherlands, the UK and the US – joined this year’s 13-day event. “The issue is, can a soldier maintain their skill set under pressure? That’s what we’re trying to achieve here,” says Don Hazel, executive vice-president of the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association, which oversees many of the exercises.
That pressure is recreated in activities including firing through mocked-up barricades, team shooting drills, a military biathlon and tests on hitting a target in the dark. “[The goal is to put] them in those kind of uncomfortable situations, to force them to think about what they’re doing so that if it’s presented to them in the future, they’ve already been through the process and should understand what they have to do.”
John R Allen is a retired US Marine Corps general, a former commander of Nato and US forces in Afghanistan, and was president Barack Obama’s envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter Isil.
Are autonomous weapons an evolution of military technology or a revolution akin to the advent of atomic power?
I think we’re on the edge of a revolution. This is about the relationship between the nature of war and the character of war. When those two are in balance – the nature of war being the human dimension and the character of war being the technology – we see steady progress. When technology gallops ahead of human understanding we have a problem. I think we’re on the edge of that.
What technological changes will we see in the next few decades?
We may find that we can posture forces early enough in the process to preclude the conflict entirely. But let’s say that we’ve been unable to prevent the conflict and we’re now waging it. I can foresee occasions when autonomous systems that have been trained in our own ethical values can be used.
Will autonomous weapons lead to fewer wars?
I think we will still see wars being fought below the threshold of militaries that wage warfare with artificial intelligence. But our intelligence-gathering capabilities may be so highly sophisticated by the use of these algorithms and the capacity to ingest so much information that we’re able to sense these conflicts are beginning to evolve and could, in fact, take steps necessary to preclude them.