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Monday 9 – Wednesday 11 October 2023 | WP3219

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“There is a new digital fog of war”

Conference Mission and Scope

  1. Carl von Clausewitz identified five components of military strategy: the moral, physical, statistics, mathematical and geographical. There is also the technological. The Future War, Strategy and Technology Conference examined seven distinct but linked tracks of analysis: strategy and future force; technology, innovation, capability requirement and capability-development; policy; ethical and legal; training and education.
  2. For the Alliance, there are several questions that it must address. What EDTs will be relevant and have offensive and defensive military utility? What impact will such technologies have on military strategy, doctrine, concepts, tactics, training, education, and personnel?  How should such technologies be developed and procured and what parameters should inform such choices? What future balance will Allies and Partners need to strike between resilience, security of information, and defensive/offensive capability?  What relationships must be forged between the private sector (industry and academia), government, and the military for optimum improvements in security and defence?
  3. There are five working imperatives for shaping future war: cognitive superiority, resilience, power projection, command and control, and cross-domain defence. Technology will be vital in assuredly accelerating decision-making, protecting information and dominating a new escalation ladder that will incorporate conventional force, cyber force, and nuclear force.

The Future War, Strategy and Technology Challenge

  1. The focus of the conference was on the relationship between the NATO MIoP, the threats and missions of the Alliance, and emerging and disruptive technologies. For the Alliance this manifold challenge is implicit in the three re-conceived NATO core tasks of deterrence and defence, crisis management, and co-operative security, which are today very different in both scale and complexity than when first conceived in 2010. The sine qua non of future Allied deterrence and defence will thus be a MIoP that is ready for the threat posed by Russia, able to contend with the geopolitical, military, and technological consequences of a rising, militarist China, whilst also able to confront and master a gamut of destabilising below the threshold of war risks around the 360-degree periphery of the Euro-Atlantic area. Given the complexity of such a challenge the MIoP will only be effective if it is embedded in a Comprehensive Instrument of Power (CIOP) concept by which all forms of statecraft are applied.
  2. A core assumption was that Europeans and Partners in the Indo-Pacific will at the very least need to develop far stronger, more agile, capable, and sustainable military forces to ease growing pressures on US armed forces and maintain interoperability with the Americans at all levels of conflict but most importantly at the high-end when forces are under intense command duress. Technology will not only be a vital enabler of such future forces but will be equally vital in further enabling the Allies and Partners to strike a new balance between mass and manoeuvre, quantity, and quality.
  3. The Russo-Ukraine War has also demonstrated that mass of force still matters and has a quality of its own. Therefore, the Alliance must meet the threat of mass as well as technology-enabled manoeuvre precisely because EDTs will afford adversaries the capacity to challenge NATO Allies and Partners across borders, regions, and the multiple domains of the future battlespace across air, sea, land, space, cyber, speed of information and assured application of knowledge.
  4. Effective multi-domain operations (MDO) will depend on robust cross-domain command structures, which must in turn be closely co-ordinated and where possible integrated with civilian domains because protecting people will be as important as projecting power. Indeed, they are two sides of the same collective security/collective defence coin. Consequently, the breadth of technology will be as important as the pace of its development. It will be hard for democracies to project stabilising power if the home base lacks resilience and protection. These missions will become ever more challenging given the marked acceleration of the 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, even more so 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.
  5. 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 as well as effective decision-making and agile command and control.
  6. Unfortunately, such adaptation will also place a premium on skill sets for which the Allied Future Force will continue to face recruitment problems given the allure of the civilian technology sector and other tech-dependant industries. New terms (and contracts) of service will need to be considered given that technology will be the capability-multiplier in an era in which the military instrument of power will rapidly become data-centric rather than platform-centric.
  7. Applied innovation must be sought if the Allies and Partners are to achieve the three imperatives of future war: information dominance, command dominance and engagement dominance. Innovation will profoundly change force structures, not least vulnerable personnel-heavy deployed headquarters. Other shibboleths will also need to be abandoned, such as the idea that there can be no defence of Europe without the Americans. Rather, the future war, future defence of Europe will require a layered defence across a broad civil-military spectrum of activities and much of that effort will need to be European.
  8. Innovation needs to be championed because it is always challenged within the Alliance on the basis that “the urgent always overcomes the important”. Therefore, transformation should not simply concern the exotic and new but also employing EDTs intelligently to enable existing platforms. Human-machine interaction should be a priority because it is increasingly important. Such a phased and measured approach will be the only way to eventually realise the application of more exotic technologies in support of Allies and Partners.
  9. Realising even modest outcomes will require all the NATO nations and those Partners willing to join the Alliance on this journey to work together to cross the hard yards of harmonisation, standardisation and interoperability which will be the quintessence of the twenty-first century Alliance. Such outcomes will be further dependent on a close and transformed relationship between the military instrument of power and the respective defence and technological bases of both Allies and Partners. Far more seamless interaction between them is needed than hitherto, as it is vital the technology sector become synergistic competitors – both competitors and partners in the development of defence capabilities. Only then will fielding times of both platforms and data-centric systems be aligned with the planning goals in, for example, the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP).

From Here to e-Technology

“There will be technology wake-up moments.”
  1. There are immediate lessons from the Russo-Ukraine War that also point to the future and warfare development imperatives based on cognitive superiority, layered resilience and influence and power projection. The utility of force will be increasingly reliant on increasingly distributed, interconnected, and intelligent digital systems. Despite the pressing need for change if not transformation in defence implied by the Russo-Ukraine War, there is still more continuity than change across leadership, logistics, industrial and political spheres.
  2. The 2022 NATO Strategic Concept and the 2019 Military Strategy are, in effect, plans for two phases of development much of which will need to run concurrently. Phase one involves identifying and learning the lessons of the Ukraine War to bolster deterrence, defence, and resilience in the short-term. Phase two entails understanding, developing, and then applying controlled but autonomous-capable systems.
  3. However, for all the advantages that EDT suggests, war will always remain a giant black hole into which people and material vanish at an alarming rate far beyond that envisaged by peacetime establishments. Whatever the adopted technology, NATO European forces will thus need far more robust logistics forward deployed, with enhanced and far more secure military supply chains particularly important. Far more materiel will also be needed, most notably ammunition.
  4. Furthermore, if NATO deterrence and defence are to be credible within the framework of the Strategy Concept, Allies will need to rebuild and build infrastructure to assist military mobility and remove all legal impediments to rapid cross border movements in a pre-war emergency, including the movement of dangerous materials. Deployed NATO forces will also require much improved force protection with the need to reduce the detectability and thus digital footprint of force concentrations (‘bright butterflies’) paramount.
  5. The war in Ukraine has revealed the vulnerability of armour unsupported by infantry and helicopters in the battlespace, as well as the need for NATO forces to be able to dominate both fires and counter-fires. Much of the vulnerability of Russian forces is due to the effectiveness of expendable drones, strike drones and loitering systems allied to precision-guided munitions. NATO forces need an awful lot more of all such systems across the tactical and the strategic. Enhanced land-based, protected battlefield mobility will also be needed together with increased force command resilience given how often the Ukrainians have been able to detect and ‘kill’ Russian forward (and less forward) deployed headquarters.
  6. Thankfully, given that NATO is a defensive alliance, the war in Ukraine has also revealed the extent to which the defence has dominated the offence if forces are reasonably matched. Whilst no-one envisages a return to the twenty-first century equivalent of the Maginot Line, secure pre-positioned capabilities and access to individual ready reserves will be vital. There is one other lesson NATO leaders and commanders need to learn given the attritional nature of the war: do not sacrifice significant mass to afford a little manoeuvre.
  7. A “transformative trinity” will also be needed if technology is to be harnessed to effect based on a common operating picture, which will in turn be critical for effective and yet complex multi-domain operations. The trinity will incorporate the “nesting” of civil and military assessments to provide a holistic view of the battlefield; the development of a system of systems approach and more devolved command and control (C2); and the ubiquity of autonomous systems across the maritime, land and air domains. Exploiting such EDTs will lead in time to strategic command that is at the edge of technology, and command and control will need to be able to cope with the complexity that it will generate if it is to retain speed of relevance. A twenty-first century version of flexible response will thus demand twenty-first century flat and agile command structures.  However, any such adaptation will also require the “intellectual reinvigoration” of the pursuit of arms with a wholly new way of thinking about how to mobilise force and resource in democratic societies.
  8. Unfortunately, despite some signs of innovation Western armed forces are not very good at adopting new technologies. For example, the development of synthetic biology technologies “is a revolution” already underway and has great potential for enhancing human genius. However, it is very little understood by military establishments because they lack “technological literacy”. If they do not understand the scope of new technologies, they cannot make informed and affordable decisions. Western powers also too often lack the ability to integrate existing technologies into military use whilst developing ‘new’ technology that is unable to deal with existing threats, such as hypersonic missiles.
  9. Therefore, before any judgements can be made over future technological requirements and with them any realistic aspirations for a properly integrated future force, forecasting needs to be markedly improved across the conflict spectrum. That goal will also mean a new balance must be struck between the high-end forces needed to deter Russia and the counterinsurgency forces that could be needed to engage state collapse in the Middle East and North Africa. Both scenarios have profound implications for the security and stability of Europe.
  10. Equally, steps need to be taken now, and that means putting the right people in the right jobs with the right brief now. The excellent NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept only has a limited shelf-life and there remain many obstacles to be overcome if it is to be realised. For example, at the national level few defence planners have the necessary procurement expertise, properly trained and motivated. Allies have also in the past tended to use the future as an excuse not to engage the present. SACEUR’s “family of plans”, Defence and Deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA), and the Regional Defence Plans are all vital, but “what SACEUR needs tonight” must also be a priority.
  11. All the above depends on the political and military cohesion of the Alliance. Indeed, cohesion is THE critical factor in the DDA because only then will deterrence be credible and if that fails defence be possible. Command and control is at the coalface between effective deterrence and defence. Credibility of such command-and-control systems and structures will only be assured if Allies and Partners step up to meet identified requirements because only then will C2 maintain speed of relevance.
  12. Beyond 2035, tomorrow in defence planning terms, the emergence of hyperwar will demand speed of action as the essential partner of robust cohesion, speed of recognition, speed of decision and speed of assembly. Cohesion and speed must in turn be underpinned by interoperability of forces at the high-end of conflict, not only during peacetime exercises but when they are under extreme command duress. In such circumstances, assured speed will depend on the depth of force integration both combined and joint.
  13. Any such force will, in turn, depend first and foremost on the quality and reach of sensors and communications as well as rapid analysis across the broad compass of the Alliance. If there is one critical change of command culture needed it is the development of cohesion-driven Alliance-wide, Partner-plus culture of automaticity of response. This is because “everything we do will be in a multinational environment, but at the moment we cannot even speak securely to each other”. Given that future multi-domain operations will take place across land, air, sea, cyber, and space it is vital these domains are digitally and securely linked. They are not.
  14. The corporate sector will also need to be incorporated into secure command nets. Between now and 2035 effective, increasingly hyper-fast ISR will thus be pivotal for both credibility and effect by providing “continuous observation” across both the analogue and digital dimensions of the battlespace and much of that system of systems will depend on autonomous technology. Such a concept is greatly hampered by the lack of trust that exists amongst Allies and Partners and their willingness to share all mission critical intel with each other. For example, the integration of human and signals intelligence remains imperfect. Moreover, ISR and military mobility will be increasingly dependent on access to the commercial sector and its systems, most notably heavy equipment transport.

Technology, Strategy and Future War

“We need to think asymmetrically as well as strategically”
  1. The overarching priority will be the establishment of architecture for the effective application and use of technology in situation sensing and situational awareness, and the development in parallel of cognitive advantage and predictive trends. However, it will be equally important to separate techno-fiction from science-fact and to think asymmetrically as well as strategically and to give the defensive as much due consideration as the offensive. This is because of need to by-pass adversary technologies through innovative and often asymmetric application of capabilities will be critically important and will thus place a particular emphasis on asymmetric solutions to technology challenges. For example, technologies often generate unexpected benefits, such as the use of autonomous underwater drones to enhance underwater critical infrastructure protection.
  2. Agile minds will be as important as robust and adaptive command and control. This will, in turn, place a particular importance on updated professional military education (PME) that also makes best practice use of emerging technologies. Multi-domain operations will require an important emphasis on the need for constantly updated mission command culture supported by lifelong and distant learning, simulation, and advanced cognitive training.
  3. “The aim must be that any shooter at any time is ready to engage”. Equally, all new technologies traverse through a “hype cycle” in which early over-expectation of performance gives way to over-cynicism before a plateau of realism follows. To avoid such a cycle the early establishment of expectation criteria would include, inter alia, the ability to properly assess “weak-tech” signals. Weak signals are past or current developments or issues with ambiguous interpretations of their origin, meaning or implications. They also include identifying research underway, often small in scale, which could lead to the next big tech breakthrough.
  4. China is ruthless in the way it exploits Western universities in search of such technologies. The Allies need to become far more effective in countering these effort but also re-establish research links with academia. This is because Western academia too often seems to treat Chinese money with less suspicion than legitimate Western defence needs. A conscious effort needs to be made to change that. Universities are where unclear observables that warn about future trends and events take place and which the Alliance has traditionally found hard to exploit. The most obvious example of this dangerous paradox is China’s interest in biotech for good and ill, demanding of the West a response that is proportionate.
  5. The Alliance also needs to exploit open-source Intelligence (OSINT) and proprietary commercial intelligence through a much more systemic and granular relationship with the broad commercial tech sector. Such a mature relationship would help enable technologies to be assessed more quickly and effectively for their military utility. Any such relationship will be vital so that AI, big data, machine-learning and autonomous systems etc. are not considered in isolation but rather as components of future technology fusions, i.e., a Digital Dreadnought. This is also because such technologies are necessarily sub-sets of mutual supporting technology.
  6. Conceptualising the place of new technologies in future force concepts should be first and foremost considered from the outset as human enablers and in so doing should place human beings front and centre. Where technologies do offer the prospect of a revolutionary “Digital Dreadnought” breakthrough in warfare, such as synthetic biology, they need to be very carefully and rigorously assessed. Indeed, how to quantify technologies in relation to effect and affordability will be critical to avoid expensive technology dead ends.
  7. The Western Way of War will also need to balance offensive power, the application of EDTs and ethical constraint if future war democratic deterrence and defence is to be legitimate, credible, and humane. Consequently, the exploitation of technology in support of soft power will be as important as those applied in support of hard power. For example, technology will not only be central to dealing with the consequences of climate change but also enable the warfighter to operate in extreme environments.  
  8. The nature and scope of the Western Way of War will also see new actors engage with the state across the conflict spectrum, including the use of high-level destructive force and resource. There will be a range of such actors, but they will need to operate within clearly established rules of the game. Private military contractors (PMCs) will become increasingly influential warfighters. The Wagner Group was a significant factor in Ukraine and elsewhere, revealing both the utility and dangers should actors provide support for and against the state. PMCs follow corporate rather than national goals even though they provide crucial capabilities.
  9. Powerful multinational civilian corporations, such as Starlink (Elon Musk), Amazon and Google, all of which have been active in Ukraine and have afforded Kyiv a technology edge over the Russians, which destroyed Moscow’s assumptions about the war. If not carefully managed the role of corporations in warfare could see a changing balance of power between the state and the corporate sector, not least because it is the corporate sector that is driving forward many of the critical future technologies with warfighting applications.
  10. Private individuals are also increasingly influential in warfare, particularly with regard to funding. Individual citizens are becoming more engaged in geopolitics in increasingly anarchic democratic societies in which social media diffuses traditional loyalties. Crowdfunding, PayPal, and a host of other payment platforms have been used, for example, to help Ukraine buy drones which have devastated Russian land formations. Private groups are also helping to recruit individuals, hack critical systems, and undertake analysis. The democracies could be particularly vulnerable if such efforts were turned against them.  

Technology before flesh

“NATO must avoid the tech paralysis of ethical analysis”
  1. Whilst emerging and disruptive technologies may not be the panacea for a new Western Way of War with its echoes of the ‘steel before flesh’ debates of World War Two, it is equally important to emphasise the utility of emerging and disruptive technologies on the continuities of war as it is to stress futuristic discontinuities and with it the judgement needed to understand this vital distinction. What will be particularly interesting over the next decade will be the extent to which the Allies and Partners together grip the interaction between old and new. Whilst there is as much a tendency to over-sell as under-sell the future of war, the Western Way of War WILL continue to place technology before flesh.
  2. NATO must avoid the tech paralysis of ethical analysis. It is only possible to determine the properties of a system based on the properties any such system possesses. The argument over the scope and character of future war too often comes down to an undetermined and ill-defined belief in the democracies over what technology MIGHT achieve coupled to ethical concerns that follow soon after about what such ‘tech’ could lead to. Although some such systems are close to deployment in the civilian sector it will be some time before such judgements can be made. The danger for the democracies is that autocratic powers, such as China and Russia, have no such concerns and will simply seek to exploit such technologies for narrow strategic advantage. The focus of democratic leaders on human security rather than territorial integrity could also gift the edge to the autocracies forcing the former to react rather than lead. This means the very process of statecraft will need to be accelerated if sound judgements are to be made quickly.
  3. Change is clearly afoot even if much of the discourse about future war is really about the here and now. Therefore, a conscious balance must be struck between planning and blind futurism because all such predictions are based on assumptions that could easily change. Rather, the focus should be on what is known and how to empower the here and now to generate deterrence and defence effect. This is because it is easier to predict where wars might happen than how wars will be fought. Where are the obvious flashpoints?  The Russo-Ukraine War has more in common with the trenches of World War One than some futuristic battlescape, albeit with the use of drones for surveillance.
  4. Equally, there can be no room for complacency. The conference confirmed its core hypothesis – that technology will profoundly change the character of war between 2023 and 2050 and that those responsible for making decisions about what forces and resources to invest in defence suffer from an insufficient understanding of the nature, scope and application of technologies that together could make a difference not unlike the use of atomic weapons in 1945 or the launching of HMS Dreadnought in 1906.
  5. There is a particular problem with strategists predicting tactics and tacticians employing strategy. Strategists get armies to war, tacticians fight it, but both need to understand the nature of the fight in which they are engaged, particularly enemy capabilities. If not, both strategists and tacticians are simply creating the conditions in which their forces will find themselves at the wrong end of a new form of Blitzkrieg.
  6. Over recent years there has also been a tendency in Western countries to elevate strategy and demote tactics, which should be only ignored at their peril because there will be layers of warfare in which a complex interaction between tactics and technology will be the norm. Even quite ‘primitive’ actors such as Hamas exploit new technologies, some of it quite basic, for tactical advantage.
  7. There is furthermore a pressing need for a much clearer distinction between the ‘strategic’ and the ‘tactical’. For example, space-based systems are strategic because they are vital for protecting the backbone of all operations. Those systems which do not provide an architecture capability are thus by definition tactical.
  8. Perhaps the most important finding of the conference is a truism that has long stood the test of time – preventing wars and fighting wars successfully is dependent on a host of vital partnerships. Partnerships between strategists, technicians, and academics, between scientists, technologists, and practitioners, between civilian and military, but above all between the public and private sectors as part of a strategic public private partnership. If technology is to be fully integrated across the civil-military security-defence-resilience paradigm much of the effort will need to focus on pan-effort doctrinal development so that technology can be applied comprehensively and evenly across force and resource.
  9. Enthusiasm should also be tempered by realism as history is replete with examples of action being stymied by counteraction. Technology will also breed vulnerabilities as well as advantages and the Western Way of Future War, most notably hyperwar, will demand a systematic consideration of such weaknesses. There is already a glaring example of such a weakness. Hi-tech systems are reliant on critical raw materials and rare earth materials very few of which are controlled by the democracies, with many under the command of China and Russia. Ninety percent of high-end semi-conductors are made by the Taiwanese company TMC.  At the very least, stockpiles will need to be built to ensure some degree of critical security.

The Western Way of Future War 

“Those developing it (EDTs) have a vastly better understanding of its applications – good and ill – than those who will be responsible for applying it.”
  1. The Western War of Future War will see AI, machine learning, quantum computing, synthetic biology and other such EDTs front and centre in deterrence and defence, which will in turn become increasingly reliant on sensors and the revolution in speed and capacity underway. Sensors are at the core of future multi-domain warfare and much of the effort should be focused therein if the greatest return from the highest investment in the most useful technology is to be realised to the greatest effect.
  2. At the same time, any Allied technological advance will see the adversary adapt, and one test will be the capacity to better understand how China, Russia and others will adapt to a changing character of Western warfare, as adapt they will. Moreover, Chinese collaboration with developing countries also suggests the transfer of advanced technologies will be faster and more widespread than many in the West believe.
  3. In 2023, Elon Musk said: “AI labs and independent experts should pause to jointly develop and implement a set of shared safety protocols for advanced AI design and development that are rigorously audited and overseen by independent outside experts.” This statement highlights a dangerous paradox at the core of the future war, strategy and technology paradigm – those developing it have a vastly better understanding of its applications – good and ill – than those who will be responsible for applying it.
  4. Why are we not listening and stopping what might be a mad rush to oblivion? Eighty years ago, the development of atomic science led to both abundant energy and the first weapon of mass destruction. However, the lack of understanding in Western governments led to cynicism in power about breakthrough scientific and industrial innovation. The so-called precautionary principle emphasises caution before any potentially revolutionary technology is exploited. Western adversaries?
  5. The hard truth is that Western governments have enshrined the precautionary principle into the ‘not spending money’ principle on the grounds that few ‘fancy gadgets’ ever work. This has stifled innovation and led to controversial decisions, such as the ban in some countries on genetic modification (GM) for reasons that are little more compelling than the burning of medieval witches.
  6. Secretary-General Lord Robertson once rightly said it is all about “capabilities, capabilities, capabilities”, but such capabilities cannot be generated until there is understanding, understanding, understanding! Sooner rather than later these days ‘new’ tech becomes old tech and inevitably spreads. AI, machine learning, quantum computing etc cannot be un-invented, and if the Western democracies do not exploit it other will. Make no mistake, the changing character of warfare is facing not just a set of force multipliers but immeasurable magnifiers.
  7. The simple truth is that no-one really understands how AI will develop and few policymakers have the imagination to envision future war, particularly when AI is fused with other technologies to realise a Digital Dreadnought moment, or rather a fleet of Digital Dreadnoughts moment. Therefore, NATO, its Allies and Partners urgently need to commission a study by the Chief Scientist to precisely do that.
  8. The last word is left to the Bletchley Declaration: “All actors have a role to play in ensuring the safety of AI: nations, international fora and other initiatives, companies, civil society, and academia will need to work together. Noting the importance of inclusive AI and bridging the digital divide, we reaffirm that international collaboration should endeavour to engage and involve a broad range of partners as appropriate, and welcome development-orientated approaches and policies that could help developing countries strengthen AI capacity building and leverage the enabling role of AI to support sustainable growth and address the development gap”.


Executive summary


Working Group Summaries

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