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Weidlich: The biggest challenge? Military robotic capabilities

An interview with Christian Weidlich, a speaker at the “Regional Perspectives of Nuclear Disarmament” panel. In the morning of the closing day of the Prague Agenda 2014 conference, Mr. Weidlich found the time to express his views and opinions on the issues related to the Prague Agenda and his own work. Christian Weidlich currently works as a Research Associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, with a specialization in Middle East arms control and warfare automatization.

Will this conference be useful for your own work?

Yes, very much. It is, on the one hand, good to meet with some friends and colleagues, and on the other hand, it is also a good chance to get to know other experts, especially from Central Europe. The organizers of the Prague Agenda have entered the international disarmament discourse, so it is a great opportunity to come to the Czech Republic and get to know the Czech views. I am very glad that the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs has inherited the speech of U.S. President Barack Obama in Prague, and has transformed his vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world into a conference cycle. Although my work, which focusses on the Middle East, was only one aspect of the entire proceedings here, it was still very good to get to know the latest diplomatic developments, so it will definitely be useful for me and my work at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).

Would you like to attend next year's conference?

Yes, of course. It was a great pleasure coming here and I would definitely enjoy coming back next year. However, I want to generally encourage the organizers set up some kind of informal forum for young disarmament experts. For example, in Brussels, at the last EU Non-Proliferation Consortium conference, there was a next generation meeting prior to the actual conference, and this was a very good way to engage with younger colleagues. There are many of them throughout Europe, and there are especially many female experts entering the non-proliferation stage, and they should enjoy more support and more chances to speak within the disarmament community. This might be something the organizers may want to consider for the next Prague Agenda.

How can the Prague Agenda influence global nuclear disarmament?

Well, it is difficult. It is difficult to influence world politics within a one-and-a-half-day conference. Nevertheless, providing a place to meet on a continuous basis and involving high ranking officials from the nuclear weapon states remain important practices; it is an important issue to remind them of their duty to dismantle their nuclear weapons. Of course, in the short term, the impact of the Prague Agenda may be quite low, but again, it is great that the Czech Republic took up President Obama's speech and his vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world. I think, in the long term, this might well impact the nuclear disarmament discourse; at least this is what I hope for.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest issue, related to the arms control in the Middle East right now?

The first issue is the nuclear negotiations with Iran on the E3+3 basis. Most experts have expected a comprehensive nuclear deal that was to be reached by November 24, 2014. Since this deal could not be agreed upon, we are looking forward to the new deadline of July 1, 2015. However, our expectations have been that such a comprehensive deal would have been easier to “sell” to Congress in December than to the new Republican-controlled Congress, which takes office in January 2015. Now, Obama’s room for maneuvering has been dramatically reduced, especially with regard to convincing the House of Representatives and the Senate to agree to the deal with Iran and lift the sanctions on Iran. So this will be a very difficult situation, but still, it is one of the major focuses of Middle East-related arms control discussions.

The second point of the regional discussions is the so-called Helsinki process on the establishment of a WMD/DVs Free Zone in the Middle East, which started in 2010, when the NPT Review Conference set the mandate for a conference to be held in 2012, which has not yet been convened. The informal consultations between the regional states, the facilitator, and the conveners are still ongoing, and there is some hope that at least a one day meeting prior to the next NPT Review Conference is possible.

However, arms control discussions in the Middle East are always influenced by regional developments. In this respect, it was good to see that despite the Syrian Civil War, with more than a hundred thousand people killed after three years of fighting, the United States and the Russian Federation could push, in a so far unprecedented manner, the Syrian Arab Republic towards joining the CWC - the Chemical Weapons Convention - and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile after the chemical massacre of Ghouta in August of 2013. This was, despite the terrible loss of life in the civil war, the major disarmament achievement in the Middle East of the last decades. The regional arms control agenda in the Middle East is also highly influenced by the developments related to both the emerging civil war in Libya, where ten thousand missiles went missing after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, and the Islamic State gaining control over modern weapons from the Iraqi army and now establishing what they call a caliphate in both Syria and Iraq, challenging the entire regional order. As a result, the Middle East is very much in flux, which makes it very difficult to achieve progress in the arms control and disarmament area.

Do you think conventional warfare will be replaced by unconventional warfare in the near future and that we will soon see a conflict with no conventional aspects at all?

I think, personally, that we will still see, for the next couple of decades, war fighting that includes kinetic action. Nevertheless, we have seen the first cyber attacks, the most prominent one being the Stuxnet attack on an Iranian enrichment facility, which led to the destruction of nearly half the centrifuges there. But I think this is the exception to the rule. For the time being, I cannot see how “traditional” warfare capabilities can be entirely replaced by cyber warfare, although cyber warfare could lead to even more destruction and more casualties. Of course, countries are already increasing their cyber warfare capabilities since there is no international regulation, but I think there will still be a mix of both conventional, kinetic war fighting capabilities and cyber and electronic war fighting capabilities.

In general and with regard to the development of modern warfare technologies, I see the problem that more and more Western states develop military robotic capabilities. This started with the drones in the air, and now robots are taking over on the ground and in the naval arena. So there is already a robotics revolution underway. From the non-proliferation and disarmament point of view, this will be one of the biggest challenges in the next couple of decades. It is not clear if and how this robotic revolution can be controlled. A civil society initiative, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, has emerged, trying to reach a ban on autonomous weapon systems, which are released and then independently select their target and engage without human control.

But we will see more of the unconventional methods being used in the future?

Yes, we surely will. Cyber warfare and military robotics, if not internationally controlled, will bring about an entirely new set of problems to which we do not have any solution yet.

What would a world without nuclear weapons look like, and what will be the difference?

Since weapons of mass destruction, and especially nuclear weapons, serve a certain purpose, it could be assumed that conventional weapons in the future of a nuclear-free world may serve the same military purposes as today’s nuclear weapons. We see this development already in the United States, where very strong conventional weaponry is developed in combination with hypersonic delivery vehicles, which can reach any place in the world within minutes. Consequently, a world without nuclear weapons would not be entirely different. Therefore, it is important that we address not only existing arsenals, but also future weapon systems.

Is a world without nuclear weapons a real possibility?

I very much hope that at least the younger people here at the Prague Agenda will one day live in a world free of nuclear weapons. However, we have to acknowledge that it will not happen overnight, that it may perhaps happen incrementally, gradually, with a lot of steps along the way. Besides furthering U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions, which obviously is becoming more and more complicated because of the worsening political climate nowadays, there is always the possibility that one state may take decisive action on the nuclear disarmament front and give up its capabilities. In my view, the most obvious candidates would be France, Britain, Israel, and North Korea. In the case of Israel, exchanging its nuclear arsenal for peace in the Middle East would be, I think, a good bargain. North Korea may one day be forced to give up its weapons – in exchange for a massive economic relief. The United Kingdom and France may one day also consider the economic impact on their budgets and reconsider their, in my view, unnecessary nuclear programs.

Interviewed by: Jakub Kuchar

Expertise to impact

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