James Kurth posed the question of ‘why we buy the weapons we do’ in an article in the magazine, Foreign Policy in 1973. Surprisingly, forty-seven years later, we are still trying to provide a satisfactory answer regarding why we spend so much money on technologically complex weaponry; weapons acquisition typically accounts for over 40 percent of defence budgets. We do this even though we are not entirely sure the capabilities we are fielding will be appropriate or effective in a future war. You only have to look at the huge sums spent on Urgent Operational Requirements by the UK MoD in Iraq and Afghanistan to see how poor MoD’s prescience was. When state of the art capabilities were being imagined in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, little thought was given to the possibility of ‘super terrorism’, even though this formed an important strand of analysis in academia and policy think tanks in the 1990s. Instead, the focus of SDR was on the need to generate two aircraft carriers and the Typhoon air superiority fighter, capabilities that took so long to acquire that they played no role in the war against al Qaeda. Even the House of Commons Defence Committee thought it odd that we continued on the same trajectory mapped out in 1998 after 9/11.
I mention this episode because there is a resemblance between this moment and what is currently happening in defence. In the 1990s, defence became excited by the promises offered by technological innovation. This was described as the revolution in military affairs (RMA). This transformation promised to seal western military supremacy for at least a generation. Sadly, these dreams were crushed by what Robert Kaplan described as ‘the revenge of geography’ as the United States became embroiled in a series of wars that proved immune to the deployment of shiny weaponry. Israel’s war against Hizbollah in 2006 provides another example of how this dependency on technology led to a dysfunctional war as Hizbollah fighters countered Israeli military superiority causing a political and military crisis within the Israeli government. The West’s successful war against Islamic State suggests technology has matured to a point where these weapons can be employed to achieve the strategic effect hoped for in the late 1990s. But it is just as easy to see this war as an illustration of the limits of what technology can achieve. It took three years for a coalition of 67 states to crush Islamic State. More problematic is that this preponderance of military power offers little to stifle Islamic State’s capacity to regenerate, caused in part by its ability to take refuge in its ‘virtual’ caliphate on the internet and by the absence of a meaningful political settlement across the Middle East, which, in turn, feeds its presence in the real world.
Why and how then do events today suggest we are revisiting the 1990s and, most importantly, will this latest revolution enjoy the same fate, i.e. die in a complex and congested geographical and political landscape? The first and most important basis for comparing today with the recent past is the perception that technological innovation is generating a distinct and unprecedented form of change on a scale that meets with Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the creation of a new paradigm.
In the 1990s, the Tofflers referred to the information revolution as the Third Wave. This reflected their belief that since the dawn of human civilization there have been three revolutions in the means of production: agricultural, industrial and information. Each represented a new paradigm that shaped the economy, society, politics and the conduct of war. Similarly, today there are those who argue we are witnessing a new revolution in the means of production. As in the 1990s, the basis of this change lies in the increasing power and speed of computers and information networks. The most obvious manifestation of this is the rise of artificial intelligence and the internet of things, as literally billions of products become connected via the internet. This has been described as the second machine age or the fourth industrial revolution. Clearly this builds on the information revolution, but it is the scale and numbers of technologies emerging and the synergy between different technological streams that is producing dramatic change in our capabilities; for example synthetic biology draws together separate disciplines in the creation of new ways of crafting and using DNA for good or ill. Second, as in the case of the RMA in the 1990s, it is claimed that these wider changes will have a profound impact on the conduct of military operations as AI combines with robots to create a battle space in which the human presence is significantly diminished. Second, we are once again asking the question will these technical changes in the way in which war is waged change not only the conduct of war but also its nature. As Christopher Coker observed, if you remove humanity from war and replace them with machines then the entire basis of modern strategic theory breaks down because human cognition is no longer interfacing with danger, violence, uncertainty and chance present on the battlefield.
Third, are the military focusing on the right way in which to apply technology? In sum, are they making the right investment for the future? Kaplan’s study of the RMA implies there was a strong bias within the military to choose how it saw the future and what kind of capabilities it needed to ensure victory in war. This brings us back to the question posed by James Kurth all those years ago, why do we buy the weapons we do? It seems to me that if we look at the United States’ Third Offset Strategy, the shopping list generated by this drive to achieve a new technological dominance is ambitious but change is conceived in narrow terms that reinforces rather than challenges our existing understanding, organization and prosecution of war. Perhaps the only notable change is the idea of the multi domain battle space as efforts are made to integrate space and cyber war into future military operations. The irony of course is that the idea of the multi domain battle space is a product of the United States Army seeking to demonstrate the continuing importance of land power at a time when its role and importance in the western world is being challenged. As a result, one cannot help but be slightly cynical about the rationale and purpose of this new construct.
However, it is the wider implications of current technological change that I think highlights the innate conservatism of the armed forces and their understanding and approach to warfare today. Although this is not a problem peculiar to the West, it is interesting that both the Russians and the Chinese seem to be more open minded about how to exploit technology in ways that have produced challenging asymmetries for western militaries on NATO’s eastern border, in the Middle East and the South China Sea. It is also apparent that states are using various electronic media to manipulate public opinion in western states, a development captured in Singer and Brooking’s book Like War. However, what is most interesting about this latest revolution is the way in which technology is lowering the barriers to exit and entry into the domain of war as the costs and access to technologies that can be weaponized are a fraction of the price paid to develop bespoke military hardware. This is changing the balance of power between strong and weak states – hence Russia’s success in frustrating US power in recent years. As a result, we are seeing the emergence of new forms of war that rely increasingly on either non military means or the contracting out of war to non state actors by the state. In many instances, these forms of war bypass the military forces of the target state. This does not mean that traditional forms of military power are obsolete, but it does challenge their centrality to the defence of the state. The manifestation of what has been termed hybrid war, gray zone or sub-threshold war builds on earlier forms of war such as cyber war, political war or information war. What is important about these constructs is that we apply the term war to activities that do not necessarily entail actual violence, which, until now, has been seen as the principal feature that distinguishes war from other forms of activity. Whether this position is sustainable is open to question, but note the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff recently observed that he feels the UK is fighting a war on a daily basis, even though it is not at war. What is clear is that technology is creating new ways for both states and non state actors to conduct attacks that are frequently non attributable, reduce the possibility of a ‘real war’ and thereby achieve their aims at relatively low cost. Again, this does not mean existing forms of military power are now obsolete, if only because there is the persistent danger of inadvertent escalation, which could lead to open war. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how large and highly vulnerable platforms will perform in war, largely because in an age of hypersonic missiles and swarms of automated drones, their survival looks uncertain. Obviously, there are measures that can be taken to improve survivability, but I wonder how much has been invested in the mundane things we cannot see such as electronic countermeasures? I also wonder how far consideration is given to more cost effective substitutes? In the 1980s, the industrialist Jacques Gansler speculated on the possibility of replacing US President Reagan’s dream of a 600 ship navy with a system of satellites and missiles as a way of preserving American control of the seas? Given the state of the art today, is this now feasible? Has anyone looked in the military into this?
Technological change is also empowering violent non state actors to coerce and challenge even strong states. In essence, this latest wave of technological change is precipitating what Moises Niam described as a diffusion of power, which by implication challenges the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Again we can see parallels between the RMA in the 1990s and now as the likes of Arquilla and Ronfeldt made bold predictions about the empowerment of non state actors through rise of net-war and cyber war. This view has greater traction today not only because the means and opportunity for non state violence have increased dramatically as a result of technological change. As important is the way in which automation and AI are changing economies and societies. What is going to happen to humanity in a world where automation increasingly takes root in all areas of our lives remains contested? For Marxists, the mass unemployment generated by the fourth industrial revolution will finally result in the realisation of long nurtured dreams. In contrast, economists such as Roger Bootle remain more sanguine. However, transitions as profound as this latest change in our means of production will produce winners and losers and marginalize those who have already been marginalized and this could have consequences for the long term resilience, cohesion and security for all states. As a result, the internal rather than external threat might come to be the existential challenge facing those responsible for the security of the state. I wonder if anyone in Whitehall has given any thought to this possible scenario. In sum, the future poses significant challenges for the military and hard choices need to be made if the state is to establish a strong defence that addresses the increased spectrum of threats it faces. Certainly, the answer no longer seems to be the army, navy and the air force as it used to be.