Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

Forever Vigilant? Technology and the Rise of Boundless Warfare


Principal Investiagtor: Professor David J. Galbreath

Funder: Arts & Humanities Research Council

Duration: March 2015 - October 2018


Project rationale and aims

Talking about emerging conflict is like talking about Donald Rumsfields known-unknowns or even unknown-unknowns. The traditional approach to understanding war is that while enemies, tactics and tools change, the basic nature of war itself, as a function of politics, does not change.

This understanding is what we might refer to as a political theory of war, espoused by the great martial philosopher of the 19th Century, Carl van Clausewitz.

This project seeks to see whether the political theory of war may be mistakenly placing the human at the centre of an altogether unhuman system. What we might refer to instead as the technical human. In doing so, it allows us to understand how technology influences contemporary warfare and future warfare challenges the bounds of space, time and force.

We understand bounded war. There are enemies. There are starts and finishes. There are ideologies. We know them as we know our own identities. As Chris Hedges states, we know them because ‘war gives us meaning’. Yet, imagine a war where the enemy becomes obtuse, hidden or dispersed. Imagine a war that appears to have no beginning, an incursion, an attack, a death or no end, no ceasefire, no peace treaty, no troop withdrawal. The bounds of contemporary warfare are, in other words, no longer there.

War then becomes something else. We can imagine that politics still matters. That power is still projected. Perhaps, there is even still lethality. This would be a true return to nature in the Hobbesian sense. Nasty. Brutish. Short. Why would such a form of warfare arise? Surely there are collective interests in maintaining bounded warfare as we know it. Nation-states are bounded. Militaries are built to fight bounded wars. Even Clausewitz’s trinity of relations between the military, the state and the society are bounded.

We can understand technology as applied, as used, as passive. I have agency. The technology does not have agency. Many scholars are looking at the impact of technology on defence in this fashion such as UAVs and airpower, processing speeds and big data, networked enabled forces and command and control. At the same time, we can understand technology as a system, a way of doing things. This is a pervasive understanding of technology. Another way to say it is that technologies provide governmentalities. Ways of understanding, of knowing, of seeing, of governing.

Relying on a collection of authors, most prominently Ruth Miller and her book Snarl, we look to see how technology, networks, systems are themselves constitutional elements that change the user-tool notions of warfare and blur the lines between agent and subject.

Outputs and impact

This project asks three questions concerning the rise of boundless warfare:

  • what role for states?
  • what future for power and security?
  • what future for security and defence?

Each of these questions have serious policy implications for understanding how technology is changing both the character and nature of conflict.

The project takes a humanities approach to emerging warfare, relying on philosophy and history to examine how technology reorders spaces in which human behaviour occurs.

It will engage with the Global Uncertainties partnership through its focus on emerging threats, disruptive technology and new understandings of conflict.

A series of articles on situating emergent warfare in the philosophical and historical traditions briefly discussed here will be produced. There will also be a research monograph produced entitled: Forever Vigilant? Technology and the Rise of Boundless Warfare.

Find out more about this project

Name: Prof David Galbreath
Title: Dean
Department: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
Location: 1 West 3.24
Phone: work+44 (0) 1225 385936