The Alphen Group V-Conference: ”Future Tech, Future Battlespace “

April 26, 2021

The discussion started from the proposition that the Alliance was at serious risk of being technically outcompeted by potential adversaries. And disturbing differences in capabilities between allies called its future coherence into question. Some remained obstinately analogue, through available budgets and political choices. Others, especially, the US, were increasingly preoccupied with expensive and demanding digitally enabled technologies such as cyber, AI, exquisite Fifth-Generation platforms, and precision weapons, driven by the prospect of confrontation with an unprecedentedly capable China. Without significant and widespread innovation and modernisation, the Alliance could historically be judged to be maintaining analogue pre-dreadnought capabilities while hostile rivals were researching and designing digital Dreadnoughts. We could therefore well be leaving ourselves open, through complacency and economic short-sightedness, to devastating Future Shock. At the very least, leading Allied nations had to continue technical competition for national and overall Western credibility. But the familiar but increasingly complex dilemma was reconciling expensive technical sophistication while retaining sufficient mass of forces.

And the alternative perspective could not be ignored: technology was not in itself militarily decisive, as World War II, Vietnam-and now, Afghanistan-had shown. Competitive advantages were constantly copied, eroded, or evaded by low-tech solutions, often simply by moving into rough, forested or urban terrain and digging in. Intense protracted conventional combat would remain a serious possibility, requiring determined boots on the ground prepared for grinding close combat against “rustic” enemies with AK-47s and no heavy weapons. The latest Ukrainian border crisis had been a stark reminder of the permanent relevance of threateningly deployable conventional hard power. To counter that, Allied numbers would continue to matter, and the possibility of strategic surprise could never be eliminated, even by perfect surveillance, as in chess. While technology certainly provided force multipliers, if remaining units and personnel numbers were hollowed out to become “a two-horse circus”, the diminished resultant force structure would be predictably fragile in any sustained high intensity conflict. (This is a criticism already levelled at the U.K.’s 2021 Integrated Review with its significant reductions in manpower alongside a proudly declared shift towards high-tech platforms and capabilities.) There was a general risk of doctrinal capture by “technological millenarians”, or “asymmetrical dreamers” whose seductive, industrially promoted, promises could turn NATO into a collection of clever, casualty averse, “pussycats”.

How was the dilemma to be managed? NATO had evolved a common War Fighting Capstone Concept but no effective shared methodology for guiding and coordinating investment choices. There could be no one single optimum trade-off between numbers and capabilities in every field. There was already an observable drift towards the Westphalianisation of force structures. The list of strategic tasks continued to expand, against a shrinking roster of nations able to undertake them alone. Interoperability was becoming harder to maintain, and future technological coherence might be as important, and difficult, as political cohesion.

Solutions and mitigating factors therefore urgently needed to be better understood. It was possible that the US technical lead had been exaggerated in some areas and that the larger European countries were already themselves planning to invest to fill gaps revealed from open sources. And capability imbalances could also be minimised by alliance planning, and partners with whatever level of capability should be found useful roles. Poorer and less technically capable Allies could, for example, take on responsibilities for combating the new threat mix of disinformation, corruption, and funding of proxies, so damagingly evident in Ukraine. This could be part of an overdue collective effort to cope with the future “battlespace” rather than simply the battlefield. Most of the vocabulary and capability for the new threat picture might not be military at all.

But there was a minimum essential, technically demanding, and expensive, military list. Every ally needed to maintain forces with appropriate readiness, professional competence, and situational awareness, contributing to and relying on a Common Operating Picture, and providing appropriate inputs for intelligence fusion. (Effectiveness here could depend upon national geopolitical position, experience and awareness as much as sophisticated remote sensors: dock police in Baltic harbours might, for example, detect indicators missed by satellites.) Assured communications formed a vital part of the list: secure tactical frequency-hopping radios were essential for advanced command and control. Logistical compatibility, cyber security and host nation protection of critical transport infrastructure were all also indispensable components.

In major individual procurement decisions, it would be vital to minimise vulnerabilities from single point dependence upon suppliers and production facilities, or from restricted ranges of sensor or positioning systems. More fundamentally, the Alliance should try to enhance its underlying rate of technical innovation: partly by better liaison with universities, working round anti-military academic institutions, and through better liaison between US/NATO and the EU, which would be playing a greater role in defence relevant R&D. But the real bottlenecks would probably lie in available funding rather than brainpower.

Diplomacy and arms control options would also remain possibilities to mitigate technical threats and surprises and limit competitive expenditures. It would be politically advantageous to pursue them and strategically desirable to succeed, but increasingly difficult to expect reliable negotiated outcomes in intangible realms such as cyber or AI. 

Overall, Alliance management of the demands and divisive affordability of new technologies was an ineluctable, decades-old problem. Judgements about it would inevitably differ. But there were genuine reasons to fear it had taken on greater urgency. Technology itself was accelerating, multiplied by the potential of machine learning, and adversaries revealed they were responding. Gaps and solutions would need to be repeatedly reanalysed and incrementally addressed at the national and Alliance level. There would be no simple, lasting or cheap solutions. But this challenge was too fundamental to allow vulnerabilities to grow through complacency or inattention.

Paul Schulte

April 2021