Technology Race and Defence:
The future of Western technological dominance in military affairs
Opening panel: Strategic context
The defence sector has always been influenced by technology and has had to keep pace with scientific progress. Regardless of the technological presence, the human factor will always remain important (e.g. after all, ultimately airspace policing is carried out by real people). Knowledge is not enough on its own if no lessons are learned from it; this conference was intended for this very purpose.
Strategic issues tie in with smart investments and intensified cooperation. Collective defence must be in the focus, and NATO deterrence does not lie only in “boots on the ground” but in a broader international response. Even if Russian aggression in Ukraine ends, we will be facing a different, new Russia (“trust broken can’t be rebuilt again”). In times of recession, defence spending is often the first area to get the axe, but this attitude must change. Furthermore, investments must be made into relevant cutting-edge technologies. However, success will not be achieved through technology alone.
Countries must continue investing into the military field, while simultaneously making improvements in the civilian sphere. NATO defence spending decreased in the period from 2012 to 2014, even as the rest of the world spends more and more on armament. The key issues for NATO are the Readiness Action Plan, quick reaction force and the principle of “one for all, all for one.”
Russian aggression against Ukraine was a wake-up call that could indeed be viewed as a strategic shock (a threat on NATO’s eastern border) and should be heard as a call to reconsider everything. The fact that for the first time all 28 NATO member states were visibly contributing each in their own way was seen as a very good sign. The response to aggression takes the form of a larger number of NATO high-readiness response forces, reinventing collective defence, use of various strategic concepts and greater integration,
As to how the gap between US and European military capabilities could be closed, patience is essential. The focus must lie on certain breakthrough technologies and the key question is research and development in European countries. Member states’ priorities must be redefined and the countries on NATO’s frontlines must focus on territorial defence. The question is how to “sell” these priorities to publics in European countries that are not on the front lines and are grappling with high unemployment and other problems.
Session One: Technology happens
The assumptions on which the 1970s-era Second Offset Strategy were based are clearly becoming obsolete. The strategy called for government acquisition of many technological production processes. As a result, defence strategy and technology were in perfect sync. This sort of technology development model required relatively high level of investments, which led to many large corporations getting off the ground. The economic boom ensured the US had a secure global leader position. Now there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of investments into purely defence related projects. Yet it is basically no longer possible to produce technological solutions that only serve one purpose. It is hard for the Pentagon to change a holistic strategy; instead the tendency would be to continue a costly (and in the long run, unrewarding) process for developing a single technology for one single conflict. Thus the main technology-related challenge is not predicting future trends but thinking about how to manage the trends in a comprehensive fashion.
Warfare depends so much on technology that we have imposed very stringent limitations on how we conduct military operations. Imagine modern warfare and the new possibilities that would open up were the Geneva Convention to cease to exist. The question is how we can integrate technology with the experience of the defence sector. We can only hold on to our technological superiority if we develop comprehensive strategies. This is vitally important as the required investment capital increases rapidly. For example, the amount of investment needed to completely re-equip the defence forces doubles every 20 years. At the same time, defence spending is decreasing. Obviously, developing technological solutions that are used solely in the defence sector is not a sustainable path. In capitalist, democratic societies, the private sector is the engine of R&D. At the same time, if one private sector company develops a solution appropriate only for the military (a solution that doubles in price every 20 years), then potential missteps in the R&D phase are of critical importance for companies. Obviously the developments are hard to sell elsewhere if they aren’t right for the military industry. Another factor: companies that develop only specialized solutions are less inclined to pursue cooperation.
At the same time, the R&D investment gap between the US and other countries has decreased by about 50%. It is not that America is decreasing investments but rather that it cannot increase them rapidly as the traditional developing countries are doing. It is clear that the West must work together on this issue. The West is not monolithic but consists of countries with different profiles and characteristics. Even if one country is not able to do everything successfully, the same country can do something very well. Thus development of multi-platform solutions can take place only in cooperation between countries. Another factor that speaks in favour of developing cooperation for seeking multiplatform solutions is the increasingly longer R&D process. The time spent on a fighter aircraft project is now 400% longer than it was in the middle of the 20th century. To sum up, the entire West will start working together much more closely in future.
Session 2: Impact on Military Affairs – Endless Revolution?
Technological superiority often determines general military superiority as well. Russia’s military activity has shown how important it is to be aware of unconventional military strategies (cyber war, psyops, propaganda warfare in the media, strategic deception, etc.). Technological progress and technology are no longer just the domain of states; often non-state actors also develop innovations (and they do so faster). Non-state actors have the capacity to be more flexible, operate more rapidly, and often they are not as rigidly bound as states are by ethics, public opinion, or international law. ISIL is one of the first examples of how warfare can be crowdsourced. It is essential for militaries to have the opportunity and capacity to keep up with technological changes and implement the developments in an advantageous and efficient manner.
What challenges does this pose to militaries? First, there is a difference in what stage of development a military is in. China’s military is light years ahead of where it was 20 years ago. A great deal of money is being poured into research and procurements. Yet we should bear in mind that they are still in an early phase, having started practically from zero. The attitude is different to that of the West, where the emphasis is more on quantity than quality, and the level of technology is basically where the West was in the 1990s. Second, the main difficulty for the US and the EU is that they have plateaued; development and technology have consolidated. Ensuring stability is both a goal and an obligation. Thus any investment is always very costly and long-term, as the price of failure would be even higher. This is one of the reasons that non-state actors have greater flexibility and can adapt to changes quicker.
One of the problems with long-term planning is how to know ahead of time whether the end result will be competitive. Today it is very hard to predict where we will be in ten years. Warfare has become asymmetric, and the adversary’s technological calibre can be completely unknown to us. We must be prepared and capable for responding to changes. Thus the capability for smaller changes should be improved, a more flexible organizational structure should be developed and innovativeness should be encouraged. In a military environment in particular, we need to reduce the bureaucracy that gets in the way of creativity. We need to accept that errors will occur, but we must learn from the mistakes that are made. The keywords would be capacity for self-initiative; an independent analytical and critical mindset, and openness. As the operating environment will constantly change in future, there will be a need for people who are able to manage and cope with changes. There also has to be readiness for recruitment of people who are not traditionally seen in a military environment. In Sweden, for instance, the military visited the country’s largest gaming conference and recruited people there. The culture within a military is also a factor. A Soviet culture is still widespread in the Ukrainian military, and modernizing it is a long and arduous road, albeit extremely necessary. Any kind of innovation will be difficult and costly. Cheaper, better, faster – but only two of these three can be chosen.
Session Three: The irresistible lure of high-tech defence
As was mentioned in earlier panels, today the development and upgrading of technology is a very costly activity. The temptation to keep up with the latest developments is great, and in some sense this arises from innate human curiosity about everything that is new. We need to invest wisely, so that technology is sustainable and easily upgradable. We need to have a foundation that is expensive and longer-term and, on this footing, implement newer technologies in a less costly and more flexible manner. The key, especially in the EU and NATO is to develop cooperation between countries. Resources must be utilized efficiently (in comparison, about 25% of the Russian naval programme funds are lost to corruption) and there must be readiness and capability for extensive integration in all spheres (e.g. procurements, exercises, etc.). The question lies in the countries’ own attitude: to attain maximum military capability and be prepared to sacrifice a bit of national independence or get minimum military capability and not give an inch on national sovereignty.
The European Defence Agency is one organization that could facilitate this. Twenty-one of 27 EDA members are also NATO members. At the moment, there appears to be a great deal of overlap in cooperation (e.g. there are many types of tanks, frigates and destroyers in Europe while the US has only one model of each). Close cooperation would also mean division of roles and trusting one another. Europe’s defence spending must be increased, and directed into military industries. This would increase our military capability, bolster the economy, create more jobs and bring in more tax revenue. Civil-military synergy must be found and utilized. In earlier times, development of military technology found applications in the civilian world (e.g. microwaves, GPS and Internet). Today, however, we see the opposite tendency for communication, micro- and nanotechnology to move from civilian commerce to defence contracting and applications.