Do New Weapons Encourage Us to Fight?

By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow

There’s a lot of news worth covering lately (Wikileaks is the gift that keeps on giving for the blogophere), but a popular article in the Washington Post today raised some especially salient points for transatlantic watchers and more general international relations scholars. A recently released study by the British Defence Ministry pondered if technological advances in unmanned aerial vehicles, like the Predator drones that are now buzzing over the skies in Libya, will allow future policy makers to “resort to war as a policy option far sooner than previously.”


Whether they knew it or not, our ponderously-spelling allies in the British Defence Ministry have wandered into the crossfire of an international relations debate that has been going on for years.  Several years ago Steven Van Evra published a work hypothesizing that if countries thought offensive weaponry were more effective, they would be more likely to go to war (while if defensive weaponry were perceived to be more effective, states would be more hesitant to engage in conflict).  For example, in the early 20th century, European countries believed they could gain a strong military advantage if they were the aggressor in war, which helped create the hostile “powder-keg” political conditions in the run-up to World War I.  This theory, which uses the “offense-defense balance” to explain why countries go to war, continues to be influential to this day, and is clearly echoed in the Defence Ministry’s assertion above.


But like anything worth saying in academia, the offense-defense balance has engendered a lot of passionate arguments among the large-brained.  Scholars argue that there isn’t really such a thing as a strictly “offensive” or “defensive” weapon (is a tank an offensive or defensive weapon?  What about heavy artillery?), and military experts almost always say the defense has the advantage no matter how evolved the weaponry.  Some also concede that the offense-defense balance is a factor that leads states to go to war, but isn’t as big of a factor as, say, shifts in international power or regime type.  Indeed, in the last several years, fewer and fewer scholarly debates seem to be referencing the offense-defense balance as a legitimate explanation for inter-state warfare.


Where does that leave us on the British Defence Ministry’s arguments about the predator drone? Most IR scholars would probably say predator drones won’t have a very big effect on transatlantic countries’ pugnaciousness in future conflicts.  While the offense-defense balance remains an important theory, most academics look to cite more established reasons for why states go to war (defending national security interests, etc.).  But I’m sure several highly intelligent people would vehemently disagree to both sides of the argument.  In the end, only time will tell how drones will change the way we fight, and even then we’ll probably have competing theories about that.

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