A time to disrupt
This article was produced in association with Northrop Grumman
Throughout the ages, while training, discipline, strategy and tactics have been important and sometimes critical in battle,
just as often it has been technological superiority that has been the difference between winning and losing. Even where battles have been won against the odds of technological superiority, they have required a surfeit of other factors to counter the advantage that comes with superior technology.
As our world has become ever more dominated by technology, the technological component of warfare has risen in importance as a decisive factor. What has also been very clear is that technology that was once decisive can be equalled, and then exceeded by innovative and determined adversaries. Too often, nations have gone to war assuming that the future would be the same as the past only to find that capabilities that were once key had become redundant. This continuing state of evolution requires far-sighted nations constantly to reinvent their capability and inventory to meet different threats from new technologies.
Today, nations must have the capacity to detect air, land and sea targets with persistent surveillance and reconnaissance, together with the ability to strike these targets with long range, high precision, and increasingly cheap missiles. They must also take into account the new ability to deny space assets such as satellites, both electronically and physically, with tremendous impact on communication, navigation and timing capability. As well as this, cyber and other electromagnetic forms of attack are becoming commonplace among our adversaries. Against this sort of threat environment, there is genuine doubt over the survivability of many traditional capabilities designed for high-threat environments.
A nation examining its ability to counter today’s peer threat environment needs to consider deeply those enabling technologies that are going to be decisive in the future battlespace. These need to be focused around two primary factors; survivability, and the ability to deliver decisive effect.
So where should the focus of attention and investment be?
There are five technology domains that need to be exploited; federated digital networks; resilience and stealth; data exploitation; cyber and the electro-magnetic spectrum; and autonomous systems.
Federation and networking
Commercially this is in a very high state of maturity, yet the military domain is far behind in its exploitation of federated and distributed systems and networks. The battlespace is a remarkably un-networked place today despite the pervasiveness of this capability in everyday life. While security concerns rightly add a level of complication, the military domain remains too focused on protecting the network rather than the data and taking sensible account of what data actually requires protection.
“Despite advances in data transmission, automation, AI, and visualisation, the ability to process data into something usable remains a huge prize”
The intrinsic resilience that comes from multi-node, self-forming, self-healing networks is largely unexploited. Interoperability remains a major issue in coalition operations and even intra-nationally, despite the commercial world long-since cracking compatibility.
Resilience and stealth
The ability to continue to operate in a contested environment is fundamental. No matter how good your surveillance or strike capabilities are, if you cannot survive it is of academic interest only. This needs to become a major focus of new activity. Ideally one should be undetectable, but if detected, then forces and systems must have the ability to survive attack. Military digital platforms need to be resilient to electronic and cyber-attack. They also need a defence against physical attack through systems capable of dealing with the latest missiles. In many cases it is important to rethink the manner in which the systems and weapons are deployed—many platforms will be undefendable against today’s offensive capabilities. Exploiting opportunities offered by the environment will be vital—the concealment of systems below the surface of the ocean, for example, is becoming an area of particular interest.
The world is saturated with data. What is lacking is information and, in a military context, actionable intelligence. Our ability to be all-seeing is of fundamental importance not just to offensive operations, but in ensuring that we have understood a situation sufficiently to be able to react appropriately, whether by deploying humanitarian assistance and diplomacy or military capacity. There has been huge progress in the collection of data using sensors located in space, highly persistent air platforms, and open sources. But our ability to process this data quickly into useful information, to fuse information from multiple disparate sources, and to produce actionable intelligence which can then be disseminated to those who want it is still in a relatively primitive state.
Despite the advances in data transmission, automation, artificial intelligence, and visualisation, the ability to process data into something usable remains a huge prize. The complexity of the problem for military and security organisations greatly exceeds that in generally more simple commercial applications—but the fact cannot be ignored that the relative investment has also been much less.
Cyber and Electromagnetic Spectrum
Cyber and electromagnetic attack is rapidly becoming one of the most effective and pernicious forms of warfare. While it requires some of the most sophisticated technologies within the military domain, it is a form of warfare that rewrites the rulebook. The difficulties of assessing the threat posed by these weapons in any given situation, their deniability and the particular advantage this gives them in hybrid situations, makes them one of the most complex new capabilities in warfare. As a means of attack it transcends everything from military systems to personal systems and right across the spectrum of government and commercial interests. It is also—especially in the case of cyber—very cost-effective for the attacker. The regularity and pervasiveness of this new form of warfare indicates clearly that we are a very long way from understanding it, let alone increasing our resilience against it.
Systems that generate decisions independently of humans have had a bad press despite the fact that the world is rapidly embracing autonomy in a huge number of applications. There is a misconception that autonomous systems operate without human control. This is not true—autonomous systems still require a “human in the loop” to provide the high-level instruction on what the system is to achieve; these systems do not have a mind of their own.
Autonomous systems have intrinsic advantages in the battlespace due to their ability to assimilate massive datasets and to make rapid decisions. They are also able to withstand environments and situations in which humans would not survive. There needs to be a major focus on autonomous-manned combat teaming where the power of autonomous systems is coupled with manned systems to provide the force multiplication benefits of both.
The thoughtful and far-sighted nation would be directing very significant resources into these disruptive mega-domain technologies. There is, however, a need for focus. The new domains that are outlined above are all within the reach of today’s enabling technologies. Future generations will be seeking to exploit synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and quantum systems—but these are the next generation of technologies and will require more work.
“Autonomous systems have intrinsic advantages in the battlespace due to their ability to assimilate massive datasets and make rapid decisions”
There is also the question of where the necessary innovation will come from. The days when defence led the technology revolution and when its advances were subsequently exploited in the commercial domain are long gone. Today, defence relies heavily on commercial technologies, especially in information systems, advanced materials, manufacturing technologies, propulsion, and communications.
There are increasing calls for the adoption of more commercial technologies. Where commercial technologies have tremendous advantage is in providing cost efficiencies, but they come with two disadvantages. The first is that the commercial technology provider might not necessarily want the military to exploit its technological capabilities, fearing commercial consequences, and the second is that, by definition, those same technologies will be available to the adversary, so at best it is a zero sum game in technological superiority terms.
The thoughtful and far-sighted nation therefore needs to supplement the intelligent exploitation of commercial technologies with major investments in the militarisation of these technologies.
Governments must pay close attention to the technologies that are required in combatting the challenges unique to high-end warfare. Their willingness to do so could well be the difference between winning and losing the next battle.
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