“Significant or revolutionary disruption of military capabilities is either already ongoing or will have considerable effect over the next five to ten years”.
NATO Technology Trends 2023-2043, March 2023
March 31st. Let me admit something terribly embarrassing at the outset of this missive: I was a train-spotter. Yes, in my now distant youth I would stand at the end of still sooty station platforms wearing the eponymous hooded quilted jacket known as the anorak, taking down the numbers of locomotives as they passed. As a group we were also dismissed as ‘The Anoraks’. At the time steam traction was steadily giving way to diesel and electric traction and it was the technology that I found interesting. That is perhaps why I am also directing a major conference that will take place in October entitled Future War, Strategy and Technology under the leadership of General Lord Richards (sponsorship opportunities still available).
The conference is supported by NATO and its Chief Scientist, Dr Bryan Wells. Bryan and his team have just published the excellent NATO Technology Trends 2023-2043 https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2023/3/pdf/stt23-vol1.pdf & https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2023/3/pdf/stt23-vol2.pdf
Future proofing NATO
The core message of the NATO report is both sobering and encouraging in equal measure. Between 2023 and 2043 NATO asserts that advanced military technologies will become increasingly intelligent, interconnected, decentralised and digital. This was also the conclusion of my 2022 Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe, co-written by General John R. Allen and Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges. Consequently, military capabilities will become ever more autonomous of human command, networked, multi-domain, and precise, not to mention fast (hyperwar). The technologies that appear in the battlespace will also be increasingly those developed first and foremost by the commercial sector and thus have a raft of dual-use applications.
The good news is that such emerging technology-enabled capabilities will greatly increase NATO’s ability to uphold a credible deterrence and defence posture by turbo-charging the Alliance’s operational and organisational effectiveness. The NATO of 2043 will also be a markedly different beast to the NATO of 2023…it will need to be. Critically, so-called emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) will enable the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept’s five Warfare Development Imperatives (WDI): Cognitive Superiority; Integrated Multi-Domain Defence; Cross-Domain Command; Layered Resilience; and wide-ranging Influence and Power Projection.
The not-so-good news is that NATO’s adversaries, most notably China are also fully engaged in exploiting these technologies for future war. Moreover, they also present significant challenges to the Alliance across the operational, interoperability, ethical, legal, and moral spectrum. In the twenty years to 2021, the combined EU countries increased defence expenditure by 20%, the US by 66%, Russia by 292% and China by 592%. In other words, the Allies need to relearn some of the ‘national endeavour’ lessons of industrial warfare – albeit contextualised for the information age – and provide the investment required to place their defence industries on a war footing. This needs to drive a closer and more transparent relationship between defence and industry to ensure that their forces can acquire and maintain the right information technology, combat platforms, support systems and munition stockpiles within the right timescale and at the right cost to deter and, if required, defeat future threats. The nature of 21st century warfighting technology suggests that industry must be an integral part of the through-life team that helps to maintain defence’s combat edge and readiness.
Interoperability or inoperability?
The key to NATO’s future credibility is the maintenance of military interoperability in extreme high-end warfare. As China moves to exploit such technologies, so is the United States. Therefore, industrial resilience will be a core plank of national deterrence, and will require a continuous flow of expenditure on defence, albeit on occasions at low rates of production. Viable industrial independence amongst European nations, albeit interoperable with US capability and industry, will incentivise cross-Alliance burden-sharing with capability programme collaboration between nations as a way to economise on effort. As a direct consequence of the NATO Technology Trends report NATO and its agencies should undertake an immediate audit of industrial capability and capacity and, thereafter, undertake the role of broker in this field ideally in conjunction with the European Defence Agency.
The specific aim of such a demarche would be to better understand the cradle-to- grave concept, development and acquisition of potentially revolutionary technologies that range across artificial intelligence, quantum computing, machines-learning, big data, Nano-tech, materials, hypersonic and glide missile systems, drone swarming and a host of other technologies and capabilities that begs two very big questions indeed: can the European Allies keep up and if so how?
First, the Alliance needs to build on the 2019 Military Strategy and the Warfare Development Initiative by developing a force model that can act as systems and platform integrator within Allied forces structures and across the nations. In the TAG Shadow NATO Strategic Concept we called on the NATO Canadian and European Allies to go beyond current planning to preserve all-important military interoperability into the future. Specifically, the creation of a NATO Allied Command Operations Mobile Heavy Force (AMHF) that would consolidate all Allied Rapid Response Forces into a single pool of forces supported by the requisite force, logistical and wider support structures.
Second, if speed of relevance is to be maintained the Alliance needs to adopt a concept of agile manufacturing and procurement that will enable the better exploitation of civilian technologies and thus far faster fielding of military capability at the required capacity. ‘Spin-in’ from adjacent (non-defence) sectors and incentives for S&T collaboration expand defence’s ability to innovate. The pace at which ideas move from laboratory to frontline can be a deterrent in their own right; this relies on investment, focus and exploitation projects.
Third, maintenance of a strong Science & Technology (S&T) base and supporting investment will be essential to sustain a warfighting edge. Investment can be wasted if key R&D activity is not exploited quickly.
Fourth, defence requirements and procurement practice have yet to embrace fully data and information-centric capability. This is not to eschew the importance of platforms but they will need to be better configured around the information [on-board or remote] operators need to fulfil their mission, and be able to integrate into a wider force.
Fifth, given that most equipment in service in 2035 is either in service now or is just coming into service, platform-based capability must accommodate faster refresh rates for information- and other sub-systems. There are some historical precedents for this and current experimentation in the field. For example, in 1906 HMS Dreadnought was a platform that fielded innovations that had been discretely developed independently for decades prior to being finally brought together in one ship.
Sixth, growing through-life technical complexity can only be delivered and sustained effectively by innovative commercial arrangements with ‘rainbow teams’ of large and small suppliers; these long-term relationships require two-way commitment, transparency and flexibility.
Seventh, higher procurement costs results in fewer platforms being acquired with more integrated capability to compensate. This leads to unbearable affordability and risk management issues, a vicious cycle of cost escalation, delayed delivery and reduced mass leads to indigenous industry abandoning key areas, and leaving fewer off the shelf options.
Eighth, while significant effort is applied to delivering large-scale programmes, operational military capability is most often the result of combining those programme outputs. However there is much less focus on thematic or cross-cutting multi-platform and/or multi-domain system of systems (e.g. integrated air defence) – which will be the key enabler of future military capability.
Ninth, although best led by market forces, there is strategic risk in the marked decline in the number of defence industries. Reliance on a few ‘mega-primes’ will create dependencies which may not be able to deliver capability and materiel scale up at times of crisis. .
Tenth, despite the Alliance having academic, research and commercial industry partners who lead the world in the development and fielding of some of the most exciting, breakthrough technologies for a range of applications, defence innovation too often focuses more on ‘discovering ideas’ than innovation adoption. Generally high-tech, safety intensive nature will require systems thinking to be applied from the outset allied to the early engagement of regulators.
Eleventh, fewer forces/less combat mass than in previous eras of confrontation creates an imperative for greater interoperability and multi-domain integration. Greater rigour in enforcing common standards (STANAGs) and measuring the effectiveness of technical and procedural interoperability will be increasingly important.
Twelfth, defence and defence industry are too often in competition with other (non-defence) industrial sectors for the skills required to create and sustain defence capability. An enterprise approach to the development and nurturing of relevant skills between public and private sectors will be required to ensure the right number and balance exists; this will undoubtedly require closer collaboration and some employment innovation.
Thirteenth, focussing time and resources on totemic platforms, without an equal focus on the ‘dull but essential’ supporting aspects (such as materiel and weapons stockpiles) undermines performance and effect. At the very least, a revalidation of stockpile planning is urgently required in the light of recent experience in Ukraine.
Fourteenth (and perhaps above) the Alliance must not become blinded by emerging and disruptive technologies. Human enhancement via twenty-first century professional military education and training (PMET) at all levels of mission command will be vital. Cognitive superiority will be as important as technological superiority and most definitely not an afterthought, which it too often is. PMET needs to do far more at all levels of intended effect, not least assisting in conscious work on using technology (simulation et al) to make the operation of platforms and systems easier from both a motor skills and cognitive perspective.
S**t happens! All military technology ultimately comes down to policy and planning. In May 1941 a naval battle took place that remains a metaphor for the profound tensions that exist between future war and the defence of Europe. A severely over-stretched force sent an ageing ship to confront a state of the art enemy because there was little else to send and because repeated opportunities to modernise had been sacrificed over years to satisfy politics at the expense of strategy and defence. Europe today.
On the morning of May 24, 1941 in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, a fifteen inch (38cm) armour-piercing naval shell from the German fast battleship KM Bismarck crashed into the starboard side of the British battlecruiser HMS Hood. The shell penetrated deep into the innards of Hood, pierced the armoured deck and then exploded in one of the shell rooms for the ship’s 4 inch guns which were also close to the shell rooms for two of the Hood’s main 15 inch batteries. As Bismarck’s shell exploded the stored and ‘ready’ British shells joined together in an almighty chorus of cataclysmic death that sent a cathedral spire of flame towering over the doomed ship.
The essential problems were hubris, denial and relative under-investment. At 47,000 tons The Mighty Hood was a symbol of fading British naval might in the interbellum. By May 1941, she was over twenty-two years old. Plans had been in place to modernise her in 1937 but the money had been diverted to other projects, including for the completion of the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales that accompanied her into battle.
An Allied Mobile Heavy Force would protect against such failure because it would act as an agile and adaptive high-end, first responder and force integrator, an Allied Future Force able to act from seabed to space and across the domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information, and knowledge. If sufficiently robust and responsive, and held at a sufficient level of readiness, such a force would be able to meet any and all threats to the territory of the Euro-Atlantic area in the first instance, with sufficient capacity to also support those frontline nations facing transnational threats such as terrorism.
Future War, Strategy and Technology
War is the consequence of bad policy that fuses strategy and technology. In Future War and the Defence of Europe we write, “…the danger persists that Europeans are moving inexorably towards a lowest common denominator European force, an analogue ‘European army’ in a digital age which simply bolts together a lot of European legacy forces”. To avoid that is precisely the reason for the Future War, Strategy and Technology Conference.