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ASU-led conference underscores the changing nature of war

February 24, 2015

While war will continue to be brutal and include battles, air strikes and attacks of various types, the future of war will be defined by innovations in labs, cyberspace and technological and scientific advances – as well as broad shifts in global culture, climate change and competition over resources.

That was the consensus of a collection of leading experts who gathered to discuss the changing nature of war and conflict.

New America and Arizona State University hosted the first annual Future of War Conference Feb. 24-25 in Washington, D.C. to explore the theme “How Is Warfare Changing?” The event brought together a diverse, interdisciplinary panel of thought leaders to discuss the profound social, political, economic and cultural implications of war and conflicts.

“We are at a moment of reflection in the United States after nearly a decade and a half of sustained national conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Daniel Rothenberg, professor at ASU and a fellow at New America who co-organized the two-day conference. “There is a broad-based interest in discussing conflict and war within our society, and we felt it best to bring everybody together to talk about the various aspects of emerging technologies and strategies, the ‘forever war’ paradigm and how we can better understand warfare by reflecting on history.”

The conference was the first high-profile event for the Future of War project, an interdisciplinary partnership between New America, a Washington, D.C. think-tank, and ASU, one of the nation’s largest and innovative public research universities. Topics included autonomous weapons, laws of war, synthetic biology, cyber security and attacks, technological and scientific advantages and the emotional impact of killing other human beings.

As society and technology is ever-evolving, laws are slow to change regarding war because Congress and the President rarely talk, said Yale Law School’s Harold Koh, who spoke of the authorization of future use of military force.

“Congress often uses a gimmick to get the President to talk, which means we need a process for updating these laws,” Koh said. “We are fighting laws that are based on old statutes and are being stretched.”

While the laws for authorizing war are old and outdated, the advances in synthetic biology are moving at a fast clip and have chilling repercussions if not controlled, said ASU President Michael M. Crow, who led a panel titled "How Will the Digital Biology Revolution Transform Conflict?" with ASU professors Gaymon Bennett and Gary Merchant.

“Biological weapons could wipe out an entire food and water supply, reproduction abilities, change an entire gene pool and have an outcome that could affect the entire species,” Crow said. He added that scientists won’t engage in certain activities because of the possibilities and suggested a moral basis by governments to safeguard science.

War correspondent Phil Zabriskie and author of “The Kill Switch,” said there are some things you can’t safeguard, such as the emotional impact on soldiers when they are forced to kill in combat.

“I wrote this book because I came to feel that killing was often left out of the conversation. It’s been overlooked, not discussed and swept away,” said Zabriskie, who covered both Iraq and Afghanistan for Time and other magazines. “If we’re not talking about killing, we don’t know how detrimental it can be.”

Advances in technology will hopefully cut the rate of death in both soldiers and civilians, said Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was established to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and to create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of America’s military.

“When I first joined the agency, it was during the Cold War, when we had just one monolithic threat,” Prabhakar said. “Now we no longer have just one threat but many. Chronic threats like ISIS and Ebola will be part of the landscape ... we will need sophisticated high-end security to remain successful.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Suzanne Spaulding, under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, who said the recent cyber attack on Sony is one of millions taking place every week.

“The line between war and peace is a thin one. We are under attack every day and we are not where we need to be in our cyber hygiene,” Spaulding said. "The only way to protect yourself against a determined adversary in a cyber space attack is to throw away your computer."

Other panelists included U.S. Navy Adm. Michelle Howard, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, U.S. Army Gen. Raymond Odierno and U.S. Senator John McCain.