This paper titled, Soldiers, Squadrons and Strategists: Building an Ethical Backbone for the Armies of the 21st Century, by Tom McDermott forms part of the Occasional Paper Series from the University of New South Wales: Canberra. The essay discusses the likely ethical challenges that will be faced by Western militaries in the future. The author examines how military ethicists (particularly when coordinated) might influence the conduct of war in the future at the individual, group and strategic levels. But also concedes that resources are limited and therefore recognises that this influence needs to be carefully targeted to be effective.

He states that there are three macro-themes that stand out as the core ethical challenges of the future. The first core challenge is in the operational mentoring of host nation security forces. A renewed focus on mentoring presents specific ethical challenges for military operators and policy makers. He suggests that at the tactical level there are the ethical issues of developing forces who have starkly differing values sets from the mentors. Young soldiers and officers who mentored the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were required on a daily basis to deal with issues of drug abuse, child abuse and corruption. There were issues were morally confronting and most were ill-prepared to respond.

The second core ethical challenge of the future presented by Tom McDermott is how to respond to the increasing growth of ‘modern, massive, multinational militaries’. He indicates that western governments are increasingly choosing to fight their wars in coalition. 'This approach has a number of benefits: it saves money, spreads the burden and builds legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is a prime example. As the largest coordinated military force in modern history, it eventually brought together fifty nations from regions as diverse as Mongolia and Montenegro. Such multinational coordination certainly has clear military and financial benefits but carries inherent ethical risks as well.'

The final core challenge focuses on the automation of war and military robotics. He suggests that in recent years, military theorists have been preoccupied with the proposition that technological advances in military equipment have fundamentally changed the nature of war. The author states that those arguments were flawed. 'Despite obvious technological development since the end of the Cold War with the continuing refinement of long-range weapons, fifth-generation aircraft and destructive power, war remains the same human activity it has always been. Armed conflict still embodies Clausewitz’s ‘contest of wills’ between social groups. And if Iraq and Afghanistan have shown anything about emerging trends in warfare, it is the limitation of the much-lauded technological edge developed at astronomical cost by Western militaries over the last thirty years.' He cites several key authors who suggest that a true automation of war in terms of independent, robotic decision making is increasingly inevitable. He concedes that if war can be conducted without human risk, and if automated decisions can remove responsibility from the protagonists, the nature of war might change, and suggests that establishing an ethical, legal and moral regulatory framework to contend with the automation of war is critical.

Read the paper and let us know what you think are the greatest ethical challenges facing the Australian Army into the future.