The way in which warfare is waged has entered a new iteration. Having evolved from pitched battlefields and the seas to the sky just over a century ago, it is now occurring all around us – through the internet, our consumption of media and into space. While the technological developments of the 20th century helped to level the playing field between nations, the meteoric advances in the last twenty years have meant that having a state’s wealth, or even being a state for that matter, is not a prerequisite to being able to influence the global politics. Technology has been the great equaliser and driving force in opening the world of warfare to new players, and to the West that means new potential enemies. With that context, it is unsurprising that we are observing a change in the way in which western states are structuring and preparing their defence forces in response to these new threats.
We can gather a strong understanding of the changing tactics by taking a look at the UK’s recent announcements regarding how it expects its defence to look in the future. We have seen over the last six months that large scale changes are occurring to fit with the new landscape. A greater emphasis from the Government on science and technology in defence, shows the importance that this administration is placing on the role this can play in the modern defence arena.
The ability of a nation to draw on its science and technology base to explore, experiment, evaluate and exploit new technologies, techniques and tactics will be vital to future operational advantage, security, and prosperity. Ensuring independence in defence development and procurement is also essential to a national defensive strategy.
Addressing the growing grey zone
Now, as the democratisation of technology advances, it is no longer just countries with huge spending power that can arm themselves with weapons of warfare – it can now be done on an individual basis too. These weapons of warfare are not the conventional rifle or tank, but rather non-unique computers, which through expert use, give bad actors the ability to inflict damage on their targets, whether they be governments or proxies of government. Action in this way is now understood to take place within the grey zone – an area in which bad actors are able to attack political, economic and military instruments without provoking a conventional response, or even being recognised as formal acts of aggression.
The increasing relevance of the grey zone is demonstrated by the number of acts within it making the news. Whether it be attacks by Russian hackers against the Tokyo Olympics to cause disruption, or GCHQ employing an offensive cyber-operation to disrupt attempts by hostile states to spread anti-vaccine propaganda, the grey zone is quickly becoming a major area of growth within warfare.
A potent narrative has the power to disrupt, confuse, agitate, and radicalise. Separating truth from lies and creating effective counter narratives are key battlefields for victory. The way to address this is to gather more intelligence, process it faster, and fuse it to create a clearer picture. This can then be used to diffuse adversarial tactics and underpin informed responses across both security and defence forces.
Traditional military responses have little effect against this type of warfare, which demonstrates the need for the shift towards science and technology. A more concerted effort to adapt defence against all types of attacks, whether traditional or not, is key to the UK’s multi-role forces and the growth in leading edge technology.
Strengthening our standing
With this in mind, the Integrated Review has been published at a transitional time for the UK. A year after its formal exit from the EU, the UK is trying to find and define its new place on the world stage. Whilst its membership of the EU did not have military obligations, now being separate, a clear military offering clearly demonstrates the role the UK can play. There is a specific opportunity for us to channel our science and technological expertise into strengthening defence and security capabilities, further demonstrating the UK’s ability to be a continued partner with its allies in Europe and beyond.
However, reaching the position of a specialist craftsman requires homegrown research and development. As the world has seen over the last year, supply chains are vulnerable to disruption. The twin challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit border disruption have placed an even greater emphasis on the need for the UK to develop its own sovereign operational advantages through homegrown UK technologies. According to the Institute of Physics, as of November last year, the UK was on track for science superpower status, giving a boost to the rhetoric around the UK’s technology capabilities. Being able to draw on the reserve of both private sector and military sector technology experience is crucial, not only for the cost implications of a sovereign technology superiority, but also to the quick and successful roll-out of these services. Developing, optimising and integrating the components needed to create mission-critical capability will be essential to the UK continuing in its role as a world leader in science and technology.
Harnessing the power of experimentation
The ability to move capability solutions quickly, safely and effectively from laboratory to front line is a deterrent in its own right; protracted procurement cycles are incompatible with the need to respond to rapidly changing threats. Achieving technological superiority will need prototyping to be embraced early, including through digital modelling and evaluation.
Spurred by the success of the rapid prototyping and innovation cultures championed by Silicon Valley – fail fast, learn and improve – experimentation has become more prevalent. The value of it in defence has already been realised in several interdisciplinary multinational exercises, such as the Unmanned Warrior exercise which provided a testing ground for unmanned systems and Formidable Shield which tested eight NATO countries’ defence capabilities versus ballistic missiles. These accelerate the development and integration of technologies and operating concepts by allowing them to be tested in a controlled, safe environment.
Applying this capability to the grey zone could take the form of incorporating penetration testing and Red Teaming to ensure defenders are prepared. Penetration tests actively attempt to practically exploit vulnerabilities and exposures in an organisation’s infrastructure, applications, people and processes. Red Teaming on the other hand is a scenario based and goal driven test, with the ultimate aim of emulating the real-world adversaries and attackers who are trying to break into a particular system or steal information.
The use of virtual and constructive simulations allows personnel to train with scarce or high value assets and means that live training capabilities can be adapted to meet evolving operational needs. A technology-agnostic approach should be taken throughout; integrating training systems, simulators and equipment supplied by different manufacturers to build the most effective synthetic representation possible.
A significant contributor to the UK’s preparedness will be its ability to marry improved training with the quickened adoption of science and technology, particularly those which are already being used by its enemies. Traditionally slow to take on new forms of technology, the UK needs to do more to accelerate adoption and ensure that forces have the necessary equipment to train and develop capabilities to combat more sophisticated, technology-based attacks.
To achieve this, a path needs to be cleared for the accelerated transfer of commercial sector technology into military and security use to improve its effective response to attacks that also stem from the civil sector. For the UK, being an early adopter of disruptive forms of technology will go some way to putting it ahead of adversaries and giving it a leading role in this area amongst its allies.
However, to successfully integrate technologies from the civil sector calls for further collaboration with those in the industry. Defence and security forces have first-hand understanding of their operational challenges, while academia and industry are continuously exploring potential solutions; close communication and collaboration between all parties is essential to ensure development and innovation remains mission focused. And this all falls back into the need for a modernised training program, both in terms of techniques and the tools which are used. Training partnerships with industry and allies will be able to deliver the needed tactical training to combat realistic threats while forging closer cross-government, inter-Service and international integration.
The primary obstacle to increased collaboration, is often the necessity for high security and protection over intellectual property, and open collaboration can feel at odds with the need to maintain the necessary competitive advantage. Collaborative spaces can be configured in ways that meet these confidentiality requirements, by sharing key outputs without giving away knowhow. Data would remain the property of the various partners, overseen by an independent curator that understands and mines the data to produce a coherent picture.
Defence enterprises must work together to agree common standards and principles on the use of collaborative environments, threads and twins. Only once this is understood, and a collaborative culture is embraced, can the timesaving, cost-saving, and performance-enhancing benefits of collaborative training be realised.
A clear path to move along
Britain’s new approach to warfare is aligned with the direction in which warfare is going, and the approach needed to counter growing, multiple threats. Introducing science and technology as a pillar on which to build, will provide the necessary foundation to structure a capable defence in the new workings of the world.
As adversaries increasingly channel their attacks through modern mediums, it will be a developed technological capability needed in order to address them. Acknowledging the power of science and technology is the first step to a capable defence of tomorrow. And as the UK redefines its position on the world stage, advancing our leadership in science and technology provides a platform on which it can stand with other powers. Achieving this will require targeted investment, commitment to innovation and cross-industry collaboration. Together this will ensure the UK’s forces can harness its greatest strengths and be a leader in the development of new technologies, techniques and tactics which will be vital to future preparedness. This should also be married with efforts across the UK’s alliances, whether NATO, Five Eyes or the proposed D10, to build in the frameworks which can ensure resilience in the long-term.