Theses Doctoral

Remote Controlled Restraint: The Effect of Remote Warfighting Technology on Crisis Escalation

Lin-Greenberg, Erik

How do technologies that remove warfighters from the front lines affect the frequency and intensity of military confrontations between states? Many scholars and policymakers fear that weapons that reduce the risks and costs of war – in blood and treasure – will lead states to resort to force more frequently during crises, destabilizing the international security environment. These concerns have featured prominently in debates surrounding the proliferation and use of remote warfighting technologies, such as drones. This project sets out to evaluate whether and how drones affect crisis escalation. Specifically, do drones allow decisionmakers to deploy military forces more frequently during interstate crises? Once deployed, how do these systems affect escalation dynamics? I argue that drones can help control escalation, raising questions about scholarly theories that suggest the world is more dangerous and less stable when technology makes conflict cheaper and less risky.
At the core of this project is a theory of technology-enabled escalation control. The central argument is that technologies like drones that remove friendly forces from the battlefield may lead states to use force more frequently, but decrease the likelihood of escalation when used in lieu of inhabited platforms. More specifically, these technologies lower the political barriers to initiating military operations during crises, primarily by eliminating the risk of friendly force casualties and the associated domestic political consequences for launching military operations. At the same time, removing personnel from harm’s way may reduce demand for escalatory reprisals after remotely operated systems are lost to hostile action. Drones can also help to mitigate escalatory spirals by collecting intelligence that overcomes information asymmetries that often contribute to armed conflict, helping facilitate more measured decision-making and tailored targeting of enemy forces. By more fully considering how technology affects escalatory dynamics after the initial use of force, technology-enabled escalation control theory advances our understanding of the link between technology and conflict.
I test the theory using a multi-method approach that combines case studies with original experiments embedded in surveys fielded on public and military samples. The dissertation also introduces a new research method for international relations research: experimental manipulations embedded in wargames with military participants.
In Chapter 1 and 2, I define the concept of crisis escalation and review the literature that examines the effect of technology on escalation and conflict dynamics. I then introduce the theory of technology-enabled escalation control and outline four mechanisms that undergird the theory – increased initiation, tempered/tailored targeting, restrained retaliation, and amplified aggression. Each of these hypothesized mechanisms describes ways in which emerging technologies can prevent crises from escalating into broader or more intense conflicts.
Chapter 3 describes each component of the multi-method research design that I use to test the theory in Chapters 4 through 7. Chapter 4 uses experiments embedded in surveys and wargames to assess whether and how drones allow states to more frequently initiate military operations. Chapter 5 tests whether drones enable decisionmakers to control escalation by restraining retaliation after attacks on a state’s drones. Chapter 6 and 7 test the theory in the context of U.S drone use during the Cold War and Israeli drone use from the 1960s through late-2010s. The findings of these empirical tests provide strong support for technology-enabled escalation control.
In Chapter 8, I conclude with a summary of the analysis and test the generalizability of the theory beyond the state use of drones. I find that tenets of technology-enabled escalation control explain escalation dynamics associated with U.S. cyber operations against North Korea and Hezbollah’s use of drones against Israel and during the Syrian Civil War. The chapter also maps out pathways for future research and identifies policy implications. My findings suggest the growing proliferation of drones will increase the frequency of military confrontations during crises, yet these confrontations are unlikely to escalate. Even though drones may help control escalation, clearer doctrine, rules of engagement, and international agreements to govern their use will help to further avoid crisis escalation and conflict.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Betts, Richard K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 29, 2019