“The complex, fast-paced nature of UN peacekeeping today requires a new approach that emphasizes innovation, flexibility and accountability […] This strategy includes […] the better use of technology to support lighter, more agile deployment […]” – “New Horizon” Report
The “New Horizon” report, albeit in passing, hints at a fundamental potential for future development: the introduction of advanced, modern technology into UN peacekeeping missions. It identifies “critical shortages” in “observation/surveillance, including high resolution; night operations capability; data management and analysis”. Apparently, the trend that has become known as the latest Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has not yet reached the United Nations.
What does RMA mean, exactly? How does the current situation at UN peacekeeping look like at the moment, and what impact could the RMA have on UN peacekeeping?
The commonly used definition of a RMA is Marshall’s “major change in the nature of warfare brought about by the innovative application of new technologies, which, combined with dramatic changes in military doctrine and operational and organizational concepts, fundamentally alters the character and conduct of military operations”. The transformation from the industrial age to the information age alters the way war is waged and understood in a crucial way: Information technology, precision weaponry, the use of unmanned weapon systems, robotics and network-centric warfare will enable modern militaries to lift the Clausewitzian ‘fog of war’. Most broadly speaking, the current RMA goes hand in hand with the “technologization” and “digitization” of these operations, with particular effects on three “layers” that are closely interconnected: command and control structures; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and advanced weapon technology.
To comprehensively summarize the current technological state of UN peacekeeping missions would certainly go beyond the scope of this article. Dorn (2011) suggests that there are three fundamental gaps between actual condition and target state when it comes to technological equipment of forces on the ground: the gap between the mandate and the mission, the gap between (developed) countries’ and UN capabilities, and, increasingly, the gap between the UN and its adversaries on the ground. So far, the UN system of command, control and communications is the only area that has evolved alongside the commercial sector. For peacekeeping missions, there has been no comparable progress. Indeed, Dorn says that “all too often, the international forces deployed by the United Nations are unprepared and under-equipped, unable to meet the challenges in the field, unaware of emerging threats and unable to take proactive action to prevent escalations of conflict”.
A transfer of the RMA into peacekeeping would facilitate and support peacekeeping. Already existing interconnected command and control enabled smooth information exchange: Dorn reminds us that “information technology offers [additional] capabilities that cannot be ignored in this area”, especially “scarce resources to assist those in the field: for example, image analysis, document translation and analysis, continually updated future planning, and monitoring of the progress of relief of national contingents” (p.25ff.). Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies offer the greatest potential positive effects on the ground both for traditional and more robust forms of peacekeeping. Most advanced weapon systems, however, are not yet adaptable to the needs and preconditions of present-day peacekeeping.
Our previous analysis leads us, logically, to the question why we have not seen a comparable “Revolution of Peacekeeping Affairs” so far? And if there were ways to bring it about?
1. The bulk of the TCC are developing countries. 8 of the 10 primary troop contributors have only very limited technological capabilities, rely largely on old technology from developed countries in their arsenals, and are notoriously underequipped. It is apparent that these countries cannot be expected to contribute to an advanced technology transfer to UN peacekeeping operations.
2. Developed countries could either attempt to raise the capacity of the developing countries by providing them with the devices and training necessary to meet the standard technological level; or they could chose to allow the UN Logistics System greater access to their advanced technology. In fact, they do both, but at very restricted levels. Countries have shown uneasiness with the UN acquiring advanced technology that may challenge their own technological superiority in specific areas, even though such fears may be seen as largely unfounded.
3. There are indications that despite the progress that has been made over the last decade, the mindsets of many at the UN may not yet have adapted to the RMA, especially because of low information exchange and communication between primarily nation-state military personnel and the civilian UN administration. The perceived institutional legacy and mission of the UN as an organization for peace may instigate fears that, as Dorn says, such “technology is too military […] [There are] worries about the over-militarization of operations” (p.186).
1. The reintegration of developed countries into UN peacekeeping seems to be an obvious solution to technological shortcomings. Where developed countries did/do deploy military personnel, their units were/are equipped with the highest standards, often introducing very advanced, unprecedented technology into the missions. However, developed countries have so far remained hesitant to contribute in greater numbers, presumably due to high risk averseness, material costs that the UN reimbursements cannot cover, and, at times, lack of trust in UN institutions. These hurdles are not easy to overcome. To foster developed countries’ interest in peacekeeping, and better communicate its benefits, could be starting points towards re-integration of developed countries into peacekeeping.
2. It should be noted that there is huge potential for short-term technological improvement of UN peacekeeping even under proliferation constraints, namely in the field of low-cost dual-use technology. Concentrating on this technology branch does not necessarily mean to give up on other vital technological needs, but it would be a pragmatic way to swiftly improve conditions on the ground: many peacekeeping operations lack even the most easily accessible technological tools. These tools are often freely available, because they are commercialized for private use (off-the-shelf). They have no specific military component or application, but can be used for peacekeeping purposes (dual use). Apparently, such a solution would circumvent rather than address fears of proliferation, and thus constitutes a short-term medicine rather than an actual cure.
3. Intra-institutional reform might be necessary. Major advancements in the last years, specifically concerning the role of the Office of Military Affairs within the DPKO and the formation of the new Department for Field Support, may be seen as first steps to overcome such institutional boundaries. Peacekeeping “Doctrine”, however, only mentions the importance of advanced technology in passing. There need to be further efforts to integrate military expertise and communicate advantages of advanced technology in the core businesses of peacekeeping. An important step in transparent communication of clear structures has been made with the 2008 DPKO/DFSO policy paper on “Authority, Command and Control in Peacekeeping Operations”.
 Dorn, A. Walter (2011): Keeping Watch – Monitoring, Technology and Innovation in UN Peace Operations, Tokyo: United Nations University Press.