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Greater technological utility, economic mass and the sheer weight of military numbers were the critical factors that swung the Second World War in the direction of the allied powers. It was a close-run thing. When, for example, the German war machine was able to combine new technology with innovative military doctrine in the battles for Poland and France victory was theirs. The key lesson is that, in state-on-state warfare, the armies with the better technologies and tactics usually win—it is an important consideration, even today.

In the 21st century, militaries in the west depend upon an advantage over their rivals that has been derived from assiduous scientific and technological research. In 1991, the events of the First Gulf War showed that overwhelming power, projected through advanced offensive air, maritime and ground systems, can destroy a weaker conventional state military, with this lesson being reapplied in 2003 with the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Western incompetence in not being able to win the peace should not obscure the clear ability to win a conventional war.

However, the success of the western military in fighting the armies of other states has not gone unnoticed and, in response, potential state adversaries are investing heavily in disruptive technologies and asymmetric warfare techniques. Their aim is to close the technological lead enjoyed by the west. Many of the advanced military platforms developed and procured at great expense by the west over the last three decades and which have secured its military dominance, are coming to the end of their operational lives. Coupled with a resurgent Russia and the rise of China, this means that the technological advantage on which Nato depends is at risk—or in the worst case, at an end.

This scenario should concern western leaders and military commanders, but we hear little from them. An assumption in western governments that everything is fine, that our militaries can deter aggressor states and, if necessary, defeat them on the battlefield, is folly. The history of military “offset” thinking—where states develop new technology to circumvent their opponents’ capabilities—shows clearly the foolishness at the heart of the west’s strategy. And if we continue in this myopic way, then we risk the bitterly ironic prospect of being overtaken by states more willing to learn from our own history than we are.


Defence Offset Strategies

Historically, the United States’s first offset strategy was associated with President Dwight D Eisenhower’s decision in the 1950s to invest heavily in tactical and strategic nuclear weapons to deter the stronger conventional forces of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. The second offset strategy referred to the US initiative in the mid-1970s to re-structure its military following the asymmetric defeat in Vietnam. That decision, and the political consensus that surrounded it, led to the majority of the capabilities that the US and its allies can deploy today. A third offset strategy gained traction during Barack Obama’s presidency but is a term not favoured by Donald Trump’s administration.

This third offset is associated with scientific innovation harnessed by US and western powers to generate a step-change in its strategic military capability, to be delivered over a decade or so from now. This would potentially enable the US to maintain its global military primacy in the face of the ambitions and rivalry of other powers, while potentially sharing this advantage with close allies. This change was to be based on much more than anticipated technological developments. It also encompassed organisational and behavioural shifts. The strategic insight was that large units would struggle for survival on the 21st-century battlefield. Lots of smaller, high-tech, stealthy units would be the order of the day, ones that can disperse and operate while remaining invisible to an enemy’s major guided weapons systems.

There are perceived growing vulnerabilities associated with land bases, surface ships, aircraft and space systems. This thinking suggests that the west must reform the way it operates. The assertion is that western powers and alliances could find that their current military systems are of limited relevance. Consequently, to deter or beat its adversaries, western forces might use capabilities in the future that look very different to today’s expensive maritime, land and air platforms and networks.

When the US announced its third offset strategy in November 2014, it would have been easy to dismiss it as a ploy to rescue the US defence budget from the constraints that had plagued US politics since the 2008 financial crash.

Moreover, there is scepticism regarding the real capability and success of Russian, Chinese and others’ technological strategic capacities. Curiously, western states have an interest in talking up the achievements of their adversaries, just as much as the adversaries themselves. Russia and China are certainly not tempted to understate the performance of their systems because they want foreign customers to come in and buy them. They value the soft power that is associated with a world reputation for technological prowess. In the west, Russian and Chinese claims of advances then serve to justify new programmes for the generation of defence capabilities—a mutual interdependence that fuels the “need” for evermore exquisite arms.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, moored at Portsmouth Naval Base, in August 2017

Even so, none of this diminishes the risks that are faced by western powers. Substantial evidence in the public domain clearly shows that Russia and China have developed the surveillance and precision strike capabilities to put at risk western surface ships, large military aircraft and arguably any land system, even the most heavily armoured, that are within range. In contrast, Britain has just spent £6.2bn on two aircraft carriers, the first of which was launched this summer.

Moreover, the range of anti-ship and anti-air missiles is extending. Ground-based anti-air defences have long been a focus of Russian efforts, and missiles are now able to reach the areas where large western aircraft, such as command and control and surveillance craft, have traditionally operated.

It can hardly be a surprise to western political leaders and military commanders that Russian and Chinese military powers have caught up. These states have invested heavily in copy-cat technologies so that what was once the preserve of western militaries is now regularly paraded by these states and their customers. Given the portable nature of knowledge in the age of the internet it would be naïve to assume that rival powers are not within touching-distance of western capabilities.

For example, Iran has long held anti-ship missiles that it purchased from Russia and has claimed to have developed its own supersonic, ballistic anti-ship missile. These weapons will challenge the ability of western maritime forces to operate freely in contested waters during times of international tension. If the west cannot protect their large military and security assets, adversaries will wonder if western powers will deploy them. In a demonstration of their strategic acuity, China and Russia appear to have focused their efforts on how to threaten key western assets that are large, few in number and expensive.

“These ships are there to deter- but iconic, expensive, large, rare and slow are poor qualities to possess in the 21st-century battlefield”

It is an important point. Missiles with the potential to destroy a large western maritime platform are relatively cheap to manufacture with costs significantly below half a million pounds per munition. They can be produced and fired in volume. In the United Kingdom our two aircraft carriers are intended to have allied escorts and protective capabilities, which will effectively consume a large part of the national defence budget. Their annual operational costs will invariably go up as they age, while over the same period the costs of producing offensive, guided missiles will go down. It is not fanciful to foresee a conflict in which these two vast, enormously important vessels could be faced by a swarm of missiles and other offensive ordnance. When the first aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was launched in June, the Russian defense ministry issued a mocking statement calling it a “a large convenient target.”

These ships are there to deter an aggressor state. If they are lost—to plentiful and, relatively, cheap technology wielded by our enemies, it is fair to assume that warfare will escalate rather than dissipate. Iconic, expensive, large, rare and slow are poor qualities for capital assets to possess on the 21st-century battlefield. In short, there has been a growing imbalance between the attack and defence military capabilities of states, which has been driven by the spread and speed of new technologies. It’s now much easier to attack—this will increasingly challenge the west. A large, complex defensive system has to survive intact if it is to operate and within an environment that favours the attacker, it is a characteristic that could prove fatal.

Adversaries are also able to disrupt the collection and exploitation of information by western governments through cyber and even anti-satellite capabilities. Cyber is a particularly appealing area for rivals of the west, since the development of significant capabilities does not require large amounts of capital investment or the wide-ranging knowledge base needed, for instance, for the development of new combat aircraft. The distribution of cyber capabilities across the world among governments, private bodies, criminal organisations and motivated individuals or groups is changing all the time. It may well be that western governments are much more powerful than any potential adversary, but evidence in the public domain about the incidence and success of some attacks strongly implies that there is no room for complacency.

The cyber threat spectrum is not only relevant to defence but to government as a whole, especially to the critical national infrastructure and the broader economy. Thus it requires different management and investment arrangements to those associated with traditional defence. Moreover, the west depends on satellites in orbit for surveillance, communication, intelligence and navigation, including the control of missiles. The ability of enemy states to disrupt or completely interdict western space systems would critically impede western military operations and much of civil society.

The Outer Space Treaty—to which 107 countries are party—puts few constraints on what can be done in space: it only commits treaty signatories not to base weapons of mass destruction there. Space assets are vulnerable to electro-magnetic and physical attack that could destroy or degrade navigation and communication systems. The most prominent demonstration of these capabilities came in 2007 when the Chinese conducted an anti-satellite missile test. Since then, there have been multiple reports of Russia seeking anti-satellite capabilities, including an airborne laser system. The development of exo-atmospheric anti-ballistic missiles is also bringing a capacity to destroy satellites, as the US showed when it destroyed its own malfunctioning satellite with an SM-3 missile in 2008. Whether any state would use an anti-satellite system in anger is debatable, but the inherent vulnerability of satellites to destruction or manipulation is not.


Confusing Uncertainty and Risk 

The speed of technological change in the global commercial sector, and its potential for uses in national defence, complicates government decision-making on investment in science. One of the problems encountered in this area of investment is the tendency to confuse uncertainty with risk. With regard to fighter aircraft development during the Cold War, for example, innovations in high-performance jet engines and heat-seeking missiles were devised by government-funded and supervised national and international businesses. Governments and western industry carried the risk.

In the 21st century, by contrast, rapid and decentralised scientific and technological innovation is driven largely by the private sector. This means that potential technological advances, threats and opportunities cannot be reliably monitored let alone assessed in a way that can be used for conventional governmental decision-making. This is not simply an inability to predict which of several research programmes is the more likely to yield the best technological result—it’s that the world is so complex and unknowable that it is not even certain what those results might be. Conventional risk management deals with probabilities. Managing uncertainty associated with new technology is being open to a whole range of possibilities rather than just a few identified probabilities. We need imagination rather than process to stay relevant to tomorrow’s threats.


The risk

For military planners in the UK, technological advances and emerging threats from hostile states make investment prioritisation within the defence budget essential but difficult. The UK retains a capability to design and deliver critical military equipment, so it is important to ensure that scientific, technological, design and engineering skills are kept on-shore and continually enhanced.

This applies to the scale of industrial capacity, and the relationship with universities and supply chains, as well as technological expertise in itself. The question of how best to use strategic science and technological budgets, and how large they need to be, is of paramount importance. Getting the answers right goes to the core of government’s ability to deter aggressor states and defeat them if necessary. This debate is not happening in public. If it is happening in government at all, it is only being whispered. And that could be a historical strategic miscalculation up there with appeasement in the 1930s.


How can Britain and its allies confront the military and security threats of the modern age? To answer this question, Prospect commissioned The new world of security, a special report  by leading security experts and analysts.

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