Clausewitz still holds true
There is no doubt that there is a surge of innovation in the defence and security sector. Artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technology, new materials, robotics, battery and power-producing technology, cyber and unmanned systems to name but a few are being developed and impacting theatres of operations. But how is this impacting conflict and is the impact of the technology overblown, or is this a new paradigm taking hold?
It is useful to start with Clausewitz and the explanation of his trinity. He states that “War is comprised of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force. These elements are often condensed into short-hand versions such as ‘passion, chance, and politics’. Each tendency: passion, chance, and politics of the trinity is manifested in a corresponding subject within society: respectively, the people, the Armed Forces, and the government.” And it is the will of the State (backed by a mandate from the people and the quality and motivation of the Armed Forces) to continue fighting that starts and ends conflicts.
We have seen that will play out in recent times with key powers invading and withdrawing from nations in seemingly regular cycles, despite technological advances which should have played out quickly to outright victories. The lessons of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz hold firm even now, and technology can be thought of as merely an enabler to maintain the support of the people (for example, with technology-enabled propaganda and information operations), develop good policy (say using AI and simulation) and enable the Armed Forces to maintain their dominance over their adversary through better technology.
One important insight, military officials and analysts have stated, is that “big war is back”, and with that the need for countries to have the industrial capacity and massive weapons stocks to sustain high-intensity fighting. This leads to the basic raw materials needed for weaponry – as examples, silicon being a key component of many new technologies, but lithium is also critical for efficient batteries. Securing uninterrupted supply lines for critical raw materials is as critical to new technology as developing the technology itself.
We cannot assume that current allies may be future allies, so sovereign technology needs shoring up throughout the supply chain – a point Defence Departments need to take heed of.
But as Ukraine points out, it can turn into an old-fashioned war of attrition, and a slugfest against heavily fortified defensive lines. Artillery that would be recognised by soldiers in the First and Second World Wars are still key enablers to the conflict – and in Stalin’s words, “quantity has a quality all of its own” holds true in this most modern of conflicts as much as during the Eastern Front in the 1940s.
So what of technology? The potential impact of these technologies on warfare and military operations includes improved situational awareness, reduced risk to personnel, increased efficiency, enhanced precision and lethality, and cyber defence.
A good starting place is to look at US Special Operations Command (SOCOMO) Science & Technology Office. There is a cornucopia of challenges as to what the Special Operations Force needs – but interestingly the soldier is always at the centre of everything. It is not a case of creating more autonomous weaponry and capability, but the concept is of a “hyper-enabled operator” – an “Iron Man” if you like, who is making human decisions at all time, but his or her cognition, physicality and lethality is aided by the very latest in technology.
This can range from rapidly assimilating culture, situational, regional and language awareness – there were many automatic (and very robust) translators of any language in the world on display at the recent SOCOM industry conference, SOF Week. True “babel fish” of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, allowing human-to-human interaction wherever the warfighter ends up. Virtually every concept in Science Fiction literature is being developed by someone, somewhere in the world, and this is often an inspiration for new start-ups. Another source of inspiration is nature itself – biomimicry is a key concept – not just using how birds fly, as UK company, Animal Dynamics started out developing, but also how bees think and navigate, as Sheffield University spin-out, Opteran are developing, and there are even clandestine communications over thousands of miles using tech-created “whale songs”.
It is also not just deep tech that is helping here – using technology to teach the warfighter skills like speed reading, empathy, patience – even finance and business, are all coming into the defence sector. Edtech, Fintech, Socialtech, Fintech and others are converging with Defencetech. Modern warfighting can be as much about engaging with local populations and winning hearts and minds as it is about destroying a key enemy target. SOCOM have identified 495 individual facets for future SOF team members across knowledge, skills and trait areas, and are harnessing technology to train their team members in these.
Away from the soldier directly, quantum technology is coming on stream and could have a transformational impact in many areas, ranging from permitting complete understanding of subsea vessel movements to breaking cryptography and more. Will Governments have the ability to control this powerful weapon as they did with nuclear weaponry? – that remains to be seen and there is plenty of knowledge and innovation in the start-up sector for this already. Similarly, new nanotechnology and shape changing materials are potentially changing the manner of warfare, “The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was an accidental catastrophic failure. What if adversary O-rings function as normal – until we don’t want them to?”
We know AI algorithms can process vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and make informed decisions in real-time. Like in many aspects of life, this will be transformational on the battlefield.
Autonomy, hypersonics and guided missile technology all is being enabled by technology, and will enable drones and weapons to punch through enemy defences. But here we enter the realm of the philosophy of war (there is a theory about war needing reciprocity to be somehow valid in the eyes of the warrior, and also the people) and about legalities and ethics. That is for another essay.
What we have seen as a lesson from Ukraine is the need for cheap, precision munitions – which is likely to rely on software (and by extension, software developed with machine learning in mind). This is the area that my company, Flare Bright is developing technology – enabling drones to fly accurately using software alone.
Today, around 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Thus fighting in urban areas is key. Some key concepts are being developed – harnessing existing civilian technology for the benefit of the warfighter. So for example, most modern megacities have “omnipresent sensor networks” that are part of the civilian infrastructure as well as those emplaced by local industry, military organisations as well as friendly and adversary interests. Can these be harnessed using technology by the warfighter, whilst being denied to the adversary? The opportunities and challenges around signature management and the complex interplays of social, technological, political and cultural factors will play out with the latest technology winning.
Technology helps training through simulation and scenario analysis. Even with the “fog of war”, harnessing technology, digital twins and simulation should be able to predict the likely outcome of most conflicts before the fighting starts. As gamers will recognise, sometimes overwhelming odds will make an outcome inevitable, whereas sometimes it is worth taking a risk on an unlikely outcome that could have a huge impact strategically. But training for every scenario and for every eventuality, in the actual theatre of operations against the realistically created adversary is now possible – and is getting more realistic every month. The old adage to “train hard and fight easy” has never been more appropriate with hard training now being created in the virtual metaverse, to train, analyse and prepare Armed Forces for every particular conflict.
Turning off technology
There is also a strong focus on enabling operations to continue when technology is turned off – especially if comms links are disrupted or GPS is denied. So the focus is as much on high tech that works when other high tech fails. We have to assume in total war that space assets (particular GPS which has such a wide impact on society) will be switched off immediately.
As an official UK Government report states, this will cause a much wider societal impact - measured at over £1 billion per day over just a 5 day period of outage. But the impact on the population with supply chain issues in moving food around and as we saw at the start of the pandemic, human nature’s willingness to selfishly hoard in these scenarios may cause a much greater impact than this. This returns to Clausewitz’s trinity – and how willing is the population to support military operations if there is chaos on the home front.
The final word
We should be reminded of the final word in Serve to Lead, issued to all Officer Cadets at the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst:
The One Principle of War
"War remains an art and like all arts whatever its variation, will have its enduring principles. Many men, skilled either with sword or pen and sometimes with both, have tried to expound these principles. I heard them once from a soldier of experience of whom I had a deep and well-founded respect. Many years ago, as a cadet hoping some day to be an officer, I was pouring over “The Principles of War”, listed in the old Field Services Regulations, when the Sergeant Major came upon me. He surveyed me with kindly amusement. “Don’t bother your head about all them things, me lad”, he said. “There’s only one principle of war and that’s this. Hit the other fellow as quick as you can and as hard as you can, where it hurts him most, when he ain’t looking”.”
– Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory (1956)
Some things in war will remain constant, whatever the emergence of technology.