The impact of S&T trends on the future Land Forces
While war remains a distinctly human endeavour, warfare is decidedly a human-technological undertaking. In fact, many types of modern warfare – air, submarine, naval, mechanized, chemical, biological, space, nuclear and cyber – would be impossible without scientific, technological and engineering innovations.
Given that future conflict will surely see combatants taking advantage of continuous innovations in science, technology and engineering, it is vitally important to remain aware of the emerging developments in these areas. Ignorance of the trends will undoubtedly lead to surprises and perhaps strategic shock, particularly given mounting evidence that an increasing number of science and technology (S&T) areas are experiencing exponential growth.
Although there is a positive correlation between national economic well-being and strength in S&T innovation, societies cannot be blind to the fact that there are also long-term security consequences and risks associated with the proliferation of increasingly powerful new technologies. The dawning of the nuclear age demonstrated the ostensibly unlimited extent to which human creativity, ingenuity and determination could be applied towards conceiving, understanding and harnessing the forces of nature. The development of nuclear weapons during WW II demonstrates that societies, when faced with war, will devote enormous resources towards gaining technological superiority over their adversaries. More important, the detonation of these nuclear weapons, even in the face of possible immediate existential global damage, highlights the potentially catastrophic short-term nature of political decision making.
While it is impossible to predict the future, studying the primary factors contributing to change can point to broad possibilities that lie ahead. Moreover, it is imperative that trends pertaining to S&T be analysed due to their acknowledged status as central drivers of societal change.
A key trend is the ongoing convergence of human and machine intelligence. This convergence, driven by enormous advances in computing power, is combining with innumerable advances in all physical sciences, which is leading to deep understandings of heretofore hidden aspects of our natural environment. Additionally, the convergence of nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, information technologies and cognitive science (NBIC) is a trend that promises to reshape our perception of size and power. Harnessing the unique properties of both biological and non-biological material at the nano-scale promises to dwarf the mega-projects of the 20th century. Indeed, the power of NBIC technologies threatens to eclipse that of nuclear weapons. Therefore, as these technologies mature and continue to converge over the course of the next 20 years and beyond, humankind may unwittingly augment its arsenal of global, life-terminating technologies.
Some researchers suggest that the future science and technologies that will matter the most are those that impact upon intelligence and the human mind: brain imaging, cognitive science, neurotechnology, brain-computer interfacing and Artificial Intelligence. The aggregation of biological intelligence and machine intelligence promises to grant humankind the power to solve any problem in its path. Humankind’s experience with nuclear weapons, however, demonstrates that this level of power must also be accompanied by great responsibility.
A still embryonic, though growing trend resulting from a convergence of various S&T domains, is that of human enhancement. This is not the type of external or add-on enhancements with which we are generally all familiar – such as fireproof clothing or body armour. Rather, these are enhancements that will directly alter and affect the human body and mind – and nanotechnology is expected to play a major role in this regard. This contentious area is beginning to generate significant ethical debate.
The possibility of attaining superior health, strength, endurance and intelligence without sacrificing time or effort may at first appear to be a compelling reason for pursuing this avenue of S&T development. Alternatively, the very real prospects for altering human nature in unintended ways raises the importance of continued focused debate on this issue.
There are many friction points and uncertainties that will modify the direction and outcomes of these trends. However, human choices, driven in part by fear of certain S&T outcomes, will undoubtedly be a primary source of friction that will shape the direction these trends follow. That there is no hegemonic power controlling global S&T policy decisions, however, makes it impossible to predict where human innovation will take us, or how fast it will progress. Furthermore, there is an increasing likelihood that well-intentioned policy decisions will have multiple adverse unintended consequences due to the growing complexity of globalized society. An ability to rapidly adapt while mitigating the consequences of change will be absolutely necessary for success in the future.
Building the future Land Force
Enduring human nature, coupled with the destructive potential of ever more potent technologies, places defence and security modernization efforts effectively on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, defence and security due diligence demands that defence forces adopt a mix of conventional war fighting capabilities while continuously incorporating the latest advances in S&T, lest their capabilities lag behind those of potential adversaries. Yet in so doing, they effectively acknowledge the impracticality, and indeed futility, of global cooperation, collaboration or good will.
Unless and until the technologies that are increasingly being directed inwards – those focusing on the human mind and body – are able to alter human nature and cognition in ways that mitigate the prospects for future conflict while preserving what it means to be human, then it seems that the most prudent course of action for defence and security forces is to hedge their modernization efforts with a combination of strategies.
First, defence forces must maintain modern combat capable forces with the right mix of capabilities that conform to the realities of the current and evolving global security environment. Equally, defence and security forces must build structures that acknowledge and facilitate the potential and likely imperative for global cooperation and collaboration. Fortunately, the latter strategy, although nascent, is taking shape in the form of “whole of government” initiatives within the context of a “comprehensive approach.”
Yet, to remain an effective institution into the future, the Land Force must contribute to national flexibility, adaptability and resilience. To prepare for the future, one might ask the simple question: “What are the three biggest emerging areas (technology or otherwise) that will create possible vulnerabilities for our Land Forces?” From an S&T perspective, there are a plethora of astounding advancements in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics, genomics/genetics, biotechnology, materials science and nanotechnology, quantum computer technology, information and immersive technologies, and cognitive/neurosciences from within which to choose future potential threats to Canadian society.
While these areas will undoubtedly be the source of radical and potentially disruptive changes in the future, from a Land Force capability development perspective, the greatest future vulnerabilities will result from an inability and/or unwillingness to incorporate the most useful of these developments into its capability development programs.
In this regard, current Land Force capability development trends merit close examination. Indeed, the army risks mortgaging its future flexibility and adaptability if it pursues conventional war-fighting capabilities at a rate and scale today that over-commits future financial resources, leaving little if any room to pursue novel future developments. As noted earlier, the consequence of an overly near-term focus is an amplification of the potential for future shock or disruption. Accordingly, the current Canadian Forces intent to commit its long-term capital program to the development and expansion of conventional war-fighting capabilities should be viewed as a risky strategy and an important long-term vulnerability.
To highlight this risk, a recently published monograph from the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College indicates: “the likeliest and most dangerous future shocks will be unconventional.” Future strategic shocks, it is suggested, will not emerge from thunderbolt advances in an opponent’s military capabilities, but will manifest themselves in ways far outside established defence conventions. Moreover, they will be non-military in origin and character, and not, by definition, defence-specific events conducive to the conventional employment of the defence enterprise.
Here, the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India serve as an early warning. During the post-attack evaluation, it was discovered that the attackers arrived on the shores of Mumbai with detailed knowledge of the city, which they gained from studying satellite images using free services such as Google Earth, were carrying commercial handheld GPS sets and were communicating with their handlers via the Internet and commercial satellite phone. This demonstrates a sophisticated use of readily available, highly functional, and increasingly free technologies that are extremely easy to obtain and learn.
This trend will undoubtedly continue. As commercial technology grows in sophistication, capability and ease of use, it will easily rival the capabilities available to military and police forces, which often cannot take advantage of the economies of scale found in commercial technologies since security and robustness concerns prevent their direct use by these forces, and most military technologies have an “in-service” life that is many times that of commercial technologies. Additionally, complex multi-functional technologies now often exist in the commercial sector for several years before they are “militarized.” Moreover, militarization of commercial technologies significantly increases their costs due to the added engineering effort associated with meeting security and robustness standards coupled with the small market share that they command.
The army’s ongoing investments in legacy war-fighting equipment will therefore likely pale in comparison to the investment that will be required to upgrade the information and automation sub-systems on these platforms to a level that transforms them from museum pieces to state-of-the-art platforms circa 2028 and beyond. Failure to incorporate or accommodate this eventual upgrade path in today’s legacy platform investments would leave the army in a situation where it is encumbered with manned vehicle platforms when many others will have transitioned to tele-robotic and autonomous systems and are even beginning to focus primarily on cyber warfare.
All of this emphasises the greatest future vulnerability for the Land Force – ineffective war fighting equipment and platforms that have no upgrade path, and a procurement system with insufficient flexibility and agility to fix, upgrade or replace them.
A second anticipated future vulnerability is due to a trend within the Land Force to undervalue the contribution and importance of science, technology and engineering for the advancement of military tools and equipment. At the 26th U.S. Army Science Conference, Professor Phil Sutton, Director General for Research and Technology Strategy, U.K. MoD, offered an enlightened counter-view regarding the importance of S&T for military capability development. Sutton put forward three propositions: (1) that the difference between old equipment and new is entirely due to the application of science, technology and engineering advances; (2) that replacing old equipment with new only gives incremental advantage (however, the world’s best sword is no match for smart munitions); and (3) an equipment advantage (based on new S&T) only buys time – an agile, determined and capable enemy will close the gap (directly or indirectly).
Sutton’s propositions bear further scrutiny in the context of future Land Force vulnerabilities. The first proposition emphasises the importance of long-term, persistent science, technology and engineering funding and development. Without this investment and the S&T and engineering advances that result, there would be no new equipment, and therefore no technological advantage.
The second proposition stresses the importance of establishing a technological advantage, but more importantly, the risks associated with falling too far behind the current state of the art. It also suggests that greater advantage will be attained by not simply replacing an old piece of equipment with a newer version. Instead, effort should be placed on innovation, creating a disruptive break from legacy thinking.
Finally, the third proposition highlights the importance of flexibility and agility in capability development. Exploitation of new equipment capabilities will require funding flexibility and agility, traits that are never used to describe the procurement system within which the army capability development community must function.
We cannot plan for all future contingencies, nor can we even foresee them all. Interestingly though, a potential future shock remains “shocking” only when we fail to adequately hedge our capability development activities to deal with its consequences. Thus, the more one considers the possibilities and consequences surrounding a potential future shock, and intentionally prepares for it, the more it becomes a regular problem that is treatable with established procedures, equipment and personnel. Therefore, lack of preparation is a key factor determining whether a future event will be considered as a shock.
It can be argued that the damage potential of a future event will be inversely proportional to the amount of pre-planning and preparation for that event. But since it is impossible to plan and prepare for all future possibilities, flexibility, adaptability and resilience become force characteristics of utmost importance. The current Land Force capability development trajectory, if left unchanged, will create a force that has the flexibility and agility to operate well in mid-intensity conventional war fighting. It will, however, leave the Land Force poorly prepared to respond to the future unconventional threats envisioned by those who study the emerging global security environment, such as the US Strategic Studies Institute.
Over the next 20 years, physical pressures – population, resource, energy, climatic and environmental – are likely to combine with rapid social, cultural, technological and geopolitical change to create greater uncertainty and instability. Adapting to increasing uncertainty will demand creative, innovative and unconventional thinking. Unfortunately, and despite concerted effort, capability developers are often slave to traditional thinking – failing to consider the impact of exponential S&T induced change. This is due in large measure to the fact that immediate and known threats are powerful motivators that tend to constrain military worldviews to established defence norms.
Creativity, imagination and innovation are therefore invaluable traits that must be nurtured within the capability development community. They serve as a counter-balance to the linear and conservative traditional military worldview. Herein lays a third future vulnerability for the Land Force: failing to challenge conventional beliefs by promoting and harnessing the creativity, imagination and innovation of the capability development community risks a future shock on the scale of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack, or worse.
It is highly probable that a future shock will manifest (directly or indirectly) from S&T advances in any one of a number of S&T areas, perhaps even multiple concurrent areas. The most likely candidates comprise the subject areas of: life sciences (genomics/genetics/biotechnology/biochemistry); artificial intelligence/robotics; materials science/chemistry/nanotechnology; quantum computer technology; information/immersive technologies; and, cognitive/neurosciences. The aforementioned three “future vulnerabilities” if left unaddressed will almost certainly make it difficult if not impossible for the Land Force circa 2028 and beyond to adequately respond to the consequences of such an S&T induced shock.
While the S&T community is keeping a wary eye on the developments in these fields, there is a growing gap between the knowledge that is being generated through defence S&T research, and the ability of the capability development community to leverage it with capability hedging strategies.
Regan G. Reshke is a defence engineer with Defence Research and Development Canada. He is director Science and Technology Land and the scientific advisor to Director Land Concepts and Designs.