The scientific study to identify the new challenges to security forces and the most appropriate responses to each of them needs to start with a geopolitical analysis. The scenario reading needs to be forward-looking. In the last decade, Americans and Europeans have fought in the mountains of Afghanistan; Colombians and Peruvians have disputed the control of territories with narcoguerrillas; and the Portuguese have deployed troops to fight in the deserts of the Central African Republic against natives who move with speed in a terrain they dominate. But one must realize that there is a strong trend in the urbanization of the population, leading to the possibility of the creation of ungovernable cities.
Rio de Janeiro
One of the classic examples of this trend is Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of groups armed with rifles move among the one thousand and five hundred communities that are mostly under the control of militia and drug traffickers. This alone evidences the pulverization of conflicts and characterizes a scenario of confrontations of different shades. Sometimes clashes occur between the State and criminals, and at other times the disputes are between the gangs themselves over territory.
The Armed Forces adapt
Thirty years ago, most armies were not prepared for low intensity urban confrontations with criminal insurgency. However, in Brazil, the Armed Forces are adapting quickly to this new scenario, with the evolution of troop equipment, the mechanization of infantry units in Rio de Janeiro (mainly) and the change in instruction modules, besides the creation of the Center of Instruction for Law and Order Operations in Campinas (SP) and the specialized Training Centers in more than one region.
It is also worth mentioning the increase in workloads, case studies and academic publications on the subject in training, improvement and advanced studies schools.
In the 21st century, the intolerance of public opinion about military casualties in operations has increased, especially in conflicts outside the countries’ territories, leading to questions about budget spending on these types of activities. In turn, this scenario favored the consolidation of the concept of private military companies, where former military personnel are paid much more, at the service of third parties and without the institutional diplomatic wear in case of the agent’s death. Another consequence has been the identification of the need to use more technology so that observation capability, remote attacks, communications excellence, and robotization can protect the lives of combatants.
The ethics of drone use
Observing an urban terrain is made very difficult by geography. Americans usually monitor the activities of an area before intervening via satellites and drones for long periods. In Brazil, the debut of drones as a surveillance platform in urban operations was on the occasion of Operation São Francisco, when the Armed Forces remained occupying the Complexo da Maré in Rio de Janeiro in 2013 and 2014.
Robots have preceded the progression of Israeli and American troops to locate and neutralize improvised electronic devices and allow the visualization of results of actions on the ground, since one of the greatest difficulties existing, especially in modern armaments, is to know the result of the fire. Finally, robots have a relevant function: to gather evidence to be able to justify the actions of the Armed Forces or police to public opinion, politicians or a court of law.
The big question today in Western democracies, which will soon reach Brazil, is whether the use of robots is ethical. In fact, it is not the same to send a drone to do a “surgical bombing” in Idlib province, Northeast Syria, or to send a Delta Force team to eliminate Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, leader of the Islamic State.
Politics and conflict
At the level of political decision making, it’s not easy. The problem is that with a drone, the gradation in response is more limited. Men on the ground mean high risk of human casualties, but they can still stop pulling the trigger if a child is in front of the target. This is the difference between a plane-borne weapon and a missile, meaning that it is much more difficult to interfere with the outcome of a missile after it has been sent. Meanwhile, there is the possibility of interfering with an aircraft pilot’s action, up to the last moment, or giving “common sense” flexibility depending on what he assesses about the situation. With a drone, the condemnation is less flexible, which could pose a moral problem.
Another debate that takes place regarding the issue of ethics is often put in an almost naive way. When criticizing the military interventions of some countries with bombing by aerial vectors without a declaration of war, it is omitted that many countries have long sent special forces against external actors, even in times of peace. Of course, this did not start with drones. It is also worth saying that the Israelis did not hesitate to hunt down those responsible for the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, one by one.
Still on the subject of ethics, it is also worth mentioning the electronic warfare aspect, which involves everything from interfering with the communications of opposing forces to intercepting conversations for the purpose of serving as data sources. When operating in a theater of operations outside the national territory, the freedom is much greater.
Special forces operators from European countries have much more freedom to hunt down jihadist militants with European passports and eliminate them in Iraq or Afghanistan than within the territories of NATO member states. It is worth noting that a troop operating outside the national territory usually has a rule of engagement with much more freedom of action and less questioning than a troop participating in operations of Law and Order within the country.
The reason for this in a democracy is very clear: any result, good or bad, will be reflected in the elections. In this sense, it is always better to err on the side of less because in the construction of the narrative that predominates in the press, it is preferable that a policeman or a soldier has a greater exposure to risk than a civilian. Just look at the repercussions of the death of state agents and that of civilians. It is in this sense that there is an effort by parliamentarians linked to Public Security seeking the approval of the exclusion of illegality in the case of self-defense for military personnel who have participated in these operations, as was the case of the employment of Brazilian federal troops during the 2020 carnival.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government, Diálogo magazine, or its members. This Academia article was machine-translated.