Pointing the way to the future: how technology will change defence

As part of Civil Service World’s Digital Transformation special edition, we asked sector experts to share their insight on how a broad range of near-term advances in technology will transform the way public services are delivered.

Photo: PA

By Franz-Stefan Gady

02 Apr 2020

In this entry, Franz-Stefan Gady, research fellow for cyber, space and future conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, looks at the changes that could come from digital military projects. This article was written before the coronavirus outbreak

How are digital technologies currently used in this sector?

Digital technologies or ICT have been the foundational element of military power across the globe since at least the 1970s. They continue to constitute the most vital element in advances in high-tech manufacturing and precision engineering that in turn enable the development and deployment of modern weapons systems including stealth fighter aircraft, precision-guided munitions, and modern submarines, among others. These weapons systems have shaped and continue to shape the modern battlefield. 

ICT has also created a new warfighting domain: cyberspace. Yet this might be a slight mischaracterisation. Cyberspace is often wrongly seen a separate warfighting domain next to air, land, sea, water, and space. In fact, cyber is the only domain that permeates all other domains as militaries are entirely dependent on digital technologies for conducting operations of any kind. Without digital technologies, modern military campaigns are impossible to conduct.

What is the potential for digital to transform services – what challenges could this solve?

The digital revolution originated in the United States. However, as the global balance of power is slowly shifting from West to East, maintaining a technological edge over competitors – historically the modus operandi of Western powers – will be an increasingly challenging task, particularly for medium-sized powers such as the United Kingdom.

Some defence analysts argued in the 1990s that digital-enabled military technologies, especially precision-guided munitions and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, had triggered a so-called revolution in military affairs – a radical change in how militaries could organise, equip, and fight an enemy – as evidenced by the quick defeat of Saddam Hussein during the Second Gulf War. This debate is still ongoing and has recently gained new momentum with the advent of artificial intelligence-enabled platforms (e.g. autonomously operated unmanned aerial vehicles) and how they could revolutionise the character of war.

Emerging and potentially disruptive technologies – including AI, quantum technologies and advanced manufacturing and design – have the potential to significantly accelerate the aforementioned global power shift from West to East. Next to moral, ethical and legal factors that are likely to be constraints on the employment of many new digital-enabled disruptive technologies in Western countries (and less so in China and Russia) this shift may be further accentuated by Western militaries’ opposition to the introduction of certain emerging technologies because of their possible disruptive impact on established organisational and operational structures.

However, new digital technologies have brought and could bring many benefits to the armed forces if combined with the right operational and organisational concepts. One example for what these new technologies could solve is the chronic and worsening manpower shortage in Western militaries due to our ageing societies. AI-enabled systems could help reduce the manpower demand of modern armed forces by, for example, largely automating logistics operations. Improved AI-enabled precision-strike capabilities could also help reduce casualties and collateral damage in military operations.

What will be the key factors in facilitating this transformation?

Adequate funding will be key. Another key factor will be developing new operational and organisational concepts for reorganising a nation’s armed forces to most effectively incorporate new digitally-enabled technologies in order to maintain military readiness in the 21st century. I also think that a reorganisation of defence procurement processes and the defence industrial sector overall may be necessary to enable better and faster design, development, and deployment of new platforms.

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