Future War, Strategy and Technology
- The challenge posed to the Alliance by EDTs exists across the three re-conceived NATO core tasks of deterrence and defence, crisis management, and co-operative security. The sine qua non of future Allied deterrence and defence will be a military instrument of power that is ready for the threat posed by Russia, the consequences of a rising, militarist China, as well as destabilising risks below the threshold of war around the 360-degree periphery of the Euro-Atlantic area. Europeans and Partners in the Indo-Pacific will also need to develop far stronger military capabilities to ease growing pressures on US armed forces. Technology will be one solution in striking a new balance between mass and manoeuvre, quantity, and quality, but technology will not offset a lack of quantity. There is no silver bullet.
- Day one interoperability is still a very significant challenge for Allied and Partner forces. As devolved command authority becomes ever more prevalent campaign and mission success will rely on secure and seamless data-sharing at the high end of interoperability when command and force structures are under intense pressure and over time increasingly reliant on AI-driven data integrity. Allied and Partner forces need far greater “adaptation readiness” supported by policies that enable Western governments to better exploit technology. This assessment is supported by lessons from the Russo-Ukraine War which suggest that during the next defence planning cycle (10-15 years) emerging and disruptive technologies will be applied alongside existing platforms and systems such as artillery and armour to better enable them.
- Multi-domain operations (MDO) involve integrated actions across air, sea, land, cyber and space with the critical relationship being that between sensors and command and control systems. It will be vital that SHAPE develops as a strategic warfighting headquarters designed to exert effective and upscaled command and control over such a complex and technologically driven concept of operations. The objective must always be to ensure SHAPE remains militarily fit across all and any threats it may face, which means a retained and proven capacity to analyse, advise, develop appropriate strategic approaches, plan, resource, command and control the fight, assess, and validate.
- These missions will become ever more challenging given the marked acceleration in the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop that is taking place. For example, plans must not only be updated constantly they must also be resourced, which places a particular premium on prioritisation, particularly where it concerns the use and utility of technology. For the future warrior to be effective therein, information and knowledge will be as important as capabilities and thus an integral part of multi-domain operations with a proven capacity to act at the speed of relevance. The credibility of NATO’s future deterrence will be reliant on such responsiveness.
- The lessons-learned process will be particularly important as much of it will become technology-enabled. Such lessons will also need to be drawn from across a much broader spectrum given the scope and nature of multi-domain operations with doctrine development and professional military education particularly important to maintain force and operational cohesion together with effective decision-making and agile command and control.
- If industry is to meet the demand of technological change AND the upscaling of production needed an EDT industrial strategy is required that will in turn be dependent on secure sources of vital raw materials and new productive capacity. Any such industrial strategy must be necessarily focused on the defence primes within the respective defence, technology, and industrial bases of Allies and Partners, but must also be extended into new sectors of industry and involve companies that have hitherto had little engagement with the defence sector. New supply chains will also be created that will need to be protected, a significant part of which will involve a ‘re-shoring’ of the defence-relevant industrial base.
- Where will the money come from? Adaptation of Allied and Partner forces will require very significant investment and will not be possible without the immersion into policy of industry and private sector investment across EDTs, particularly where it is the civilian sector driving much of the technological innovation. Government investment will be vital to ‘seed’ technological development because commercial markets are unlikely to invest in projects that have a maturation beyond 5 years.
- Given the likely scale of requirement and the depth of partnerships needed if Allied and Partner governments are to secure private investment at scale, governments must themselves been seen to give defence a far higher political priority than hitherto and make commitments to the medium and longer term. At the very least, governments will need to adopt a whole of government investment approach and create tax incentives for the development of nationally critical technologies. A new legal framework will also be needed together with incentives for the commercial sector to become a partner in updating systems and software regularly. For example, to promote such agility US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has adopted the practice of Transition Confidence Levers.
Future War and NATO
- As EDT is adopted forces must develop a mission command focus and be exercised to the point of failure. This is because devolved command authority will become increasingly the norm. Survivability of command will be an essential pre-requisite for mission success. At present, large Allied headquarters generate a very significant heat and electronic signature and are thus extremely vulnerable to attack. Moreover, if devolved command authority is to be credible there are two other domains that will be vital to mission success – information and knowledge. Time critical and information hungry systems will require intelligence and information sharing closer to Five Eyes levels of trust than current Alliance procedures.
- “The NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) is not fit for purpose in dealing with technological change which is far faster”. The Alliance must create a system that enables Allies to inject technology far faster into the NDPP. Planning and procurement will need to become far more closely aligned and more secure across the Alliance. Moreover, the NDPP and Allies must also be adapted to cope with asymmetric technology cycles. For example, the development of new software can take a matter of months, whereas some systems take 2-3 years whilst platforms in many Allied and Partner countries can take up to 20 years to field.
- “Too many Allied and Partner defence bureaucracies remain resistant to change”. If more agile mind-sets are to becomes the norm ‘Red-Teaming’ of decisions and plans will be vital and could well be a critical advantage. China is facing a raft of problems due to the inability of Beijing to cope with its own internal diversity. Chinese organisational culture is incapable of employing reinforcing and positive criticism. This is an area where Allies and Partners could generate a critical comparative advantage, but it will also require an overhaul of professional military education with technology applied to knowledge generation at all levels of command.
- By the mid-2030s it is reasonable to assume that emerging and disruptive technologies in the battlespace will lead to intelligent, digitised, interconnected, and yet distributed applications of force and resource on a scale, speed and scope hitherto unknown. Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and in time quantum computing are already changing society. They will also change the battlespace because such technologies will drive military strategy as much as strategy drives technology.
- Equally, it is unlikely technology will offer a silver bullet that can offset a failure of NATO Allies and Partners to invest in sufficiently capable armed forces at a size appropriate to the threats they must confront. The Russo-Ukraine War is again proving that mass is a quality. What is needed are informed and intelligent choices to be made about the application of such technology in maintaining credible and legitimate deterrence, defence, and security.
- If intelligent choices are to be made about which technologies in which to invest it is vital such choices are made in partnership with stakeholders responsible for the conduct of strategy. The fusion of strategy with technology will take place as part of capabilities development, military strategy, future force planning, the adaptation of the defence, technological and industrial base, key leader education, professional military education and within ethical and legal frameworks. Any such choices must thus be dependent on a new and much more assured relationship between Allies and Partners and between government and industry. This is because the Alliance and its Partners are entering a phase of multi-domain high-end deterrence and defence that will reach across air, sea, land, cyber and space and built on the ability to detect, determine and drive proportionate actions very fast.
The Military Applications of Emerging and Disruptive Technology
- The 2022 Future War and Deterrence Conference Report stated that, “By 2035, at the very latest, it is reasonable to assume that everywhere will be a battlefield and everything will be a weapon. Therefore, and at the very least, Europeans will need a high-end, first responder force that can act from seabed to space and across the domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space plus information and knowledge. A force of sufficient twenty-first century manoeuvre to be able to respond to any threat from the Arctic to the Mediterranean should the US be engaged in strength elsewhere. A force also of sufficient mass to simultaneously support front-line Allies and Partners in dealing with significant insurgencies and emergencies.”
- A force incorporating and leveraging EDTs that are AI, autonomous systems (including drone swarms), big data, information and communication technologies, energy and propulsion technologies, hypersonic systems, electronic and electromagnetic technologies, space-based capabilities (including commercial capabilities) from imagery to tracking and beyond, and the future role of quantum technologies, novel materials and advanced manufacturing, and military personnel that are physically and perhaps cognitively enhanced. Western forces will have to counter adversarial use of these enabling technologies, and such adversaries may not adhere to their ethical, legal, and moral norms. The true test will be interoperability among Allies and with the US future force and those of Partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific at the high-end of conflict and under extreme duress.
- AI will over time enable autonomous and high-speed weapons. AI-enabled systems will defend networks, computers, programmes, and data and respond by rapidly developing a tailored response to all forms of cyber-attack and counterattack. The challenge will be to attribute attacks. AI is central to the development of the Internet-of-Things which links everyday devices through sensors and data-processing to communicate with each other. Such devices are becoming an ever more influential part of everyday life. If such systems were to suffer a systemic attack, they could see the effective collapse of society if such an attack also took place in conjunction with the destruction of critical national infrastructures. AI will also be critical for the secure transportation of goods, ammunition, armaments, and troops and will thus be an essential enabler for future military operations through enhanced efficiencies. AI will also enable military systems to detect anomalies and predict failures.
- Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) is increasingly reliant on AI to acquire and process information vital to military operations. For example, there are a host of unmanned systems that can undertake ISR missions autonomously enabling both strategic and tactical threat monitoring. Soon, AI ‘intelligent’ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones) will not only autonomously identify potential threats but warn forces as well as engage the threat. The pace of development of such systems depends on the combined application of AI, machine-learning, and quantum computing. It is that combination which could realise a new Digital Dreadnought moment.
- AI, machine learning and super-computing already enhance target recognition by rapidly improving command understanding of operational challenges through corralling and collating reports, documents, and unstructured information into easily understandable messaging. AI also helps identify targets and forecasts enemy actions and responses. AI can also offer a more granulated picture of weather conditions, ensure supply systems remain optimised, and offer a range of command options.
- Over 30% of medicines over the next 5 years will be designed by commercial AI software which means bio-threats will also accelerate and thus make bio-warfare both more accessible and affordable. On the plus side Robotic Surgical Systems (RSS) and Robotic Ground Platforms (RGPs) will increasingly enable remote surgery as well as a host of other vital medical support. Perhaps the greatest near-term impact of AI on the way armed forces do business is in defence education and training by promoting a host of remote training and distant education possibilities with real time support for deployed forces.
Synthetic Biology and Human Enhancement
- Synthetic biology combines living systems and organisms and applied engineering principles to enhance human performance. Much of the work concerns nanotechnologies, which combine material science, chemistry, biology, and engineering down to the molecular level. Synbio also seeks to augment the natural capabilities and capacities of the warfighter by manipulating biology to increase and enhance protection, situational awareness and lethality.
- Future war applications will range from the use of extremely small robots, hyper-reactive explosives, and electromagnetic super-materials. Further developments are also taking place in aerospace and reinforcing armoured protection as well as lightweight, flexible, and highly durable materials reinforced by sensors.
- In August 2019 NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that “A serious cyberattack could trigger Article 5, where an attack against one ally is treated as an attack against all”. Cyber warfare is usually defined as a cyber-attack or series of attacks that target a country. It has the potential to wreak havoc on government and civilian and military infrastructures and disrupt critical systems to such an extent it could result in damage to the state and even loss of life. Cyber warfare typically involves a nation-state perpetrating cyber-attacks on another, but in some cases the attacks are carried out by terrorist organisations or non-state actors seeking to further the goal of a hostile nation. There is no universal, formal definition for how a cyber-attack may constitute an act of war.
- Cyberspace has also been designated a domain in which the Alliance will operate and defend itself as it does in the air, on land, and at sea. NATO will thus deter and defend against aggression both in the physical and the virtual. To that end, NATO has established a new Cyberspace Operations Centre in Mons to increase cyber situational awareness. This capability is reinforced by national cyber capabilities.
- Cyber espionage involves the use of botnets or spear phishing attacks to compromise sensitive computer systems and steal proprietary information. Both China and Russia are engaged in extensive operations against Allied and Partner states. Espionage and sabotage are closely linked with adversaries and terrorist groups seeking not only to steal information but also to destroy it.
- Offensive cyber actions include potentially mass disruptive denial-of-service (DoS) attacks which ‘crash’ systems by forcing websites to become overloaded with fake requests, thus disrupting critical cyber operations and systems and preventing critical civilian and military authorities from acting at the top of government. As cyber war escalates hostile forces could attack power grids, communications networks, health systems and other critical infrastructures upon which democratic open societies rely.
- One of the most pervasive forms of attack on open societies is cyber-enabled information warfare. Civilians and military personnel are under constant pressure in social media from efforts to influence their belief systems and undermine the cohesion of democratic states. Most modern economies are overwhelmingly digital and hostile forces routinely target ministries and corporations, most notably stock markets, payment systems, and banks. The worst case would be a systemic surprise cyber-attack, in effect a digital Pearl Harbor or 9/11 that would be a massive ‘out of the blue’ attack, possibly in conjunction with a physical attack or wider hybrid warfare.
- Quantum computing combines quantum physics, computer science and the theory of information to decrease the number of operations needed to calculate at ever greater speeds and at far lower levels of energy use. Future quantum computing will be at the core of machine learning, big data analytics and AI and is the most likely core component of the kind of technology fusion that leads to a “Digital Dreadnought” moment. However, quantum computing (QC) is perhaps the most over-sold and yet to be realised technology. As of November 2023, no quantum computer can out-perform a ‘conventional’ super-computer and the technology faces a host of engineering and systems challenges before the undoubted potential such a machine would afford the first to develop and apply it in the real world. In theory, the advantage of quantum computing is the sheer amount of data it could process, the speed it could process that data, and the possibility such a system could in time make autonomous decisions.
- In time, quantum computing will enable machine-learning, but it is also a voracious consumer of both of historical data and real time information, precisely so it can ‘learn’ how the data patterns evolve to identify trends over time. The challenge is that as the volume of data increases, so will the very complexity of the data and the sheer scale of it, thus making it necessary for the system itself to generate said data independent of any operator.
- There are quantum computers in existence, such as Google Sycamore, which has reportedly solved a problem in 200 seconds that would have taken today’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to solve. If true, such a capacity could have a range of military applications. At the very least, early military applications are likely to be focused on quantum sensing and secure communications, cryptographic decoding, cryptanalysis, AI/pattern recognition and bioinformatics to analyse bioweapons so that countermeasures could be stepped up rapidly.
- Machine learning is the use and development of computer systems that can learn and adapt without explicit instructions by using algorithms and data patterns to draw inferences. To be effective in the battlespace machine learning will need to become intrinsically more robust before good use can be made of it in, for example, scenarios with increasingly intelligent and adaptive opponents.
- In time, machine learning tools will be applied across the whole spectrum of military operations, from improved strategic thinking down to low-level tactical applications, like controlling swarms of autonomous unmanned weapons systems. However, some of the most influential applications in a military theatre could be felt away from the battlefield. Chinese military strategy includes the aim of using machine learning to achieve superiority across the electromagnetic spectrum. Developing faster, more insightful machine-learning led AI could clearly enable one side to enhance the communications and situational awareness of their forces, whilst enabling them to disrupt, degrade and deny those of their adversary.
- Machine learning and deep learning are two sides of the same coin. The rapid progress in deep learning techniques affords an ability to analyse different kinds of images and data from heterogeneous sensors, which is why this technology is particularly interesting for military and defence applications. As yet, many machine learning systems are unable to compete with intelligent opponents, which could make such systems vulnerable to the ones that are.
- Adversarial machine learning will be particularly important if opposing forces can make machine learning systems useless or even dangerous for those relying on them. Other military applications of adversarial machine learning systems include camouflaging adversarial algorithms to hide military aircraft or land vehicles from drones and satellites equipped with systems based on artificial intelligence. Similarly, missiles guided by deep learning algorithms could be deceived by adversarial data and diverted to other targets. DARPA has recently launched several important projects focused on the use of adversarial machine learning such as the GARD (Guaranteeing AI Robustness against Deception) programme. GARD operates on a four-year plan and is designed to study the theoretical foundations useful for the design of more robust machine learning algorithms, the creation of defence algorithms from adversarial data and the creation of test frameworks.
The Changing Nuclear Threat and Next Generation Weapons
- Today, there are nine nuclear weapons states; the US, Russia, UK, France and China plus India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also seeking such a capability. Russia is no longer participating in the START 2 treaty, which is due to expire in 2026 and unlikely to be renewed. China refuses all and any such constraints and aims to increase its nuclear arsenal from some 400 warheads today to over 1500 by 2035. The UK is also building a new generation of four Dreadnought class nuclear ballistic missile submarines and the US is considering once again placing nuclear weapons in Britain at RAF Lakenheath, as part of a “potential surety mission”.
- Whilst Beijing and Moscow routinely exaggerate the technological advances they are making in manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles and air-breathing manoeuvre technologies (MARV), China and Russia are developing systems designed to overcome any potential strategic missile defence. Much of the effort to create advanced MARV systems involves hypersonic capabilities, which combine elements of both ballistic and low trajectory strikes at speeds over Mach 10. For example. The Russian Avangard system is launched as a ballistic missile but then goes into an extended hypersonic glide, which means it can only be detected at the very end of its mission. Moreover, the combination of ICBM technology and hypersonic glide is also being reinforced by the development of MARV technology. Fractional Orbital Flight technology increases the challenge for any defence exponentially.
Directed Energy Weapons
- Directed-energy weapons (DEW) uses concentrated and focused energy to incapacitate or destroy targets. Lasers, microwaves, and particle energy beams are the most common such systems and are designed to strike personnel, incoming missiles, vehicles and optical ranging equipment. The US is also developing electro-magnetic railguns as part of a new multi-layered defence again ballistic, hypersonic, and hypersonic glide missiles and vehicles and could be deployed as early as 2025.
- Russia, China, India, and the UK are also developing such systems. Iran claims to have an operating system whilst Turkey says it used an ALKA directed energy system in Libya in August 2019. The advantages of directed energy weapons are manifold. Radiation beyond the visible spectrum is undetectable and they are silent and unaffected by climatic factors such as wind. The main limiting factor is dispersal of the beam over distance. Lasers operate at the speed of light and in time could be effective in space as an anti-satellite weapon. They do not necessarily need large logistics support but do need a lot of energy and the means to generate it, which makes ships the most convenient ‘host’ for such systems.
- There are also microwave weapons under development for both anti-personnel and equipment use (even down to the low tactical level) with the US developing the Counter-Electronics Microwave High-Powered Advanced Missile Project as part of future missile defence. Particle-beam weapons use charged or neutral particles to attack targets both in the Earth’s atmosphere and beyond but are vulnerable to what is called ‘blooming’ – the dispersal of the particle beam. Plasma weapons discharge a stream of particles made up of dynamic matter comprised of electrons and other particles. The MARAUDER project is one such example designed to discharge an extremely brief but concentrated and large amount of directed energy. Sonic weapons, as the name suggests, use disruptive low frequency tones to damage human brains.