War’s digital future is here

There is war in Europe. The battle for Ukraine highlights an unpleasant truth: our way of life needs protecting, and everybody in the digital world needs to play their part.

War is not a topic you normally associated with a digital conference like NEXT. And yet, there was NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David van Weel, on stage, talking about how we’re all part of the defence industry now.

“War is not just about rockets and missiles, war can be caused by climate change,” said van Weel. “It can happen in cyberspace.”

We need a whole-society effort in war, he suggested – and that’s clear in Ukraine, where we’re seeing as much effort online as on the battlefield. Ukraine was lurking in the background of many talks, and in the foreground of those by Jessica Berlin and Mikko Hypponen. There’s war in Europe, and that means we need to think about defence differently.

The emergent face of war

Emerging and disruptive technologies — and tech in general — are playing an increasing role on the battlefield. But most of these inventions no longer come from the defence sector. 30 to 40 years ago, the military was the powerhouse of invention. They gave us the technologies underpinning the internet, computers, and GPS, for example. Even velcro and duct tape emerged from military research.

In the decades since, government research and development budgets have declined, while the market has picked up and developed new technologies instead. The arrival of truly global markets has opened up the potential profits from technology. But that technology is no longer making its way back into the defence sector. Amazon can deliver whatever you want to wherever you want it, and take your money easily — while the military is still driving around in diesel trucks, and using spreadsheets to do the planning.

The military has an adoption problem.

The adoption challenge

What happens when the military doesn’t have an adoption issue? In Ukraine, the Russian attempt to bring down the communication infrastructure was thwarted through Starlink satellites. Generally, commercial companies are not thinking about the security implications of their technologies upfront. But Ukraine made it clear that this commercial system could keep government comms running during a war.

The war in Ukraine highlights more and more examples of this. Smaller companies are flying UAVs — drones — as part of the war effort. Al is being used to translate and analyse intercepted transmissions. Crowdsourcing is being deployed to help keep soldiers supplied. In Ukraine, the adoption gap is being bridged.

NATO wants to close that gap permanently. And without needing a war to do it. Strong capabilities are the best deterrent against war, he suggests.

NATO’s new plan for tech

However, van Weel was quite willing to admit that often the military is not a very friendly customer, lurking as they do behind high gates and security searches. More deeply challenging, though, is a requirement-based procurement process, that doesn’t take account of new technological innovation quickly enough.

They get that. And they’re going to change that. And there are two initiatives that will change things.

1. DIANA: the defence industries accelerator for the North Atlantic.

This is a network of accelerator sites across member states, where they’re running challenges based on real-world military problems. They’re not defining the technology they want, just the difficulty they want solved. The best solution will get money and support to mature the product.

The products aren’t designed to be military-exclusive, though. They acknowledge the commercial imperatives that keep companies agile come from competition in the market. So, you can have all 30 NATO nations as potential customers – and make money commercially as well.

They’re aiming at three months to arrive at a contract. On average, currently, it takes over 16 years. That’s quite a streamlining…

2. The NATO innovation fund

This is a venture capital fund, to the tune of €1bn, that will invest in defence tech startups and mature them. It’s a market that private venture firms have been reluctant to invest in, making funding for growing tech businesses hard.

“In the so-called valley of death, we’ll give you the first water bottle to get through it,” he said. “And we’ll search for other people with water bottles to get you through that desert.”

He acknowledged that there’s also a hesitancy among tech firms to work with defence. People don’t like the idea of their tech being used to kill people.

“I’m here to tell you that we want to show that we’re responsible users of technology,” he told the NEXT22 audience. “We’ve already done that for AI, by creating principles of responsible use. If we don’t reflect the values and principles of the society we’re trying to protect, then we’ve failed.”

And that means both transparency and accountability in their dealings with the tech industry.

Technologies to prevent future war

They have a list of EDTs they want to focus on — but it’s not a static list, and will shift over time. The current list includes:

  • Big data
  • AI
  • Quantum computing
  • Hypersonics
  • Biotechnology
  • Human enhancement
  • Novel materials
  • Propulsion

The last two are highly entwined with green technologies, and a keen awareness that the military will go through the green energy transition with an eye to keeping free of energy dependence on other powers. It’s yet another lesson from Ukraine, and the gas dependence that’s costing Europe so much right now.

A success in commerce and defence

Does the fund have to make money? Yes. If companies aren’t successful, it won’t be seen as an attractive investment pattern. And they genuinely hope that the money will help companies get to the point where commercial VCs want to invest as well. The fund is not aiming to take majority stakes.

They won’t prevent Chinese investment in these companies, for example, but they will help them protect their IP. The core point is that China already has investment funds like this, and is using them to invest in our startups. Or, on occasions, to buy up the technology and the company.

“In the end, we are a better investor because we are based on democratic principles, and we want to avoid monopolising your technology,” he said.

Fighting 21st Century war

Also on stage was Richard Barrons, a former UK military leader and now co-chairman of Universal Defence and Security Solutions. And he had a brutal point to make. “We’re in the deepest of shit,” he said. “The world we all live in is becoming more uncertain and dangerous for our security, our prosperity, and our values.”

We are in the midst of a clash between democracy and autocratic capitalism as an organising force of our societies. This is combined with climate change, the impact of the digital age and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to create a period of instability. We no longer live with a sense of successive generational betterment. Instead, we live with the return of existential peril, after a 30-year respite.

The nature of war doesn’t change: brutal, feral and disappointing. It’s usually unsuccessful, and isn’t driven by reason. “It can choose you, even if you would prefer it didn’t,” Barrons said. “But the way it is fought does change.”

The digital transformation of war

The digital age will lead to the most profound transformation in the way we wage war in over 100 years. “Most of you will have to pick a side in your personal, family and national interest,” Barrons said.

He suggested that the Ukraine conflict will come to be seen as a second-class example of this transformation because it’s not between the two major players of our era: the US and China.

But it is an example of how war has changed. In particular, technology has made it more transparent, through satellite monitoring, and more precise, through information gathering and targeting systems. This doesn’t exist in isolation, though, but is blended with all the traditional ways of waging war. He likened it to an orchestra where all the players are not just learning their instruments, but also how to play with others — with their lives at stake.

War is not just about the people in uniform. They’re often won by civilians, who bring skills, mass, and endurance. You only have to look at the mobilisation of the Ukrainian population to see this. The fusion of the military, the public sector and the private sector is easier for autocracies to do because they can control all aspects of it. But, in the end, democracies have proven better at it, by being more creative, even if sometimes slower and more reluctant.

Digitising defence

The new defence mindset touches on everything the digital industry does: data science, secure cloud, AI and synthetic environments, among many others. Not one of these technologies is led by people in uniform. But the people who do develop these technologies need to enter a dialogue with our defence forces.

“It’s a difficult conversation because in many cases you don’t understand or even like the military,” Barrons told the tech-centric audience. “And the military understands what they’re trying to do, but not what you do — and they don’t really like you, either. Someone has to sit in the middle.”

The winners of our time will be those who harness what the tech industry does, while protecting it, to gain an edge over antagonistic nations. That edge is about being as transformative as AirBnB or Uber, he suggested, while the losers will be the gentle incrementalists, who change a little at a time, or just continue to operate the way they’ve always worked. There are no prizes for second place.

The defence metaverse

Want a good example? Barrons works with a Canadian company called CAE, which is running a programme to build what they call the “single synthetic environment”. The aim is to build a real-time synthetic model of the operating theatre with a scale and complexity that wasn’t possible without these emerging technologies. They’re looking at digital twins of cities down to lampposts and windows, but coupled with data on humans and their movements, from both censuses, and mobile phone data.

They’re also investigating capturing social media sentiment to understand how the city is feeling. You can see how this would benefit the military when coupled with information about the position of your military assets and those of the enemy. But this could also be useful for helping ambulances and fire engines during civic emergencies. The street-level data interface is derived from game engines. Yes, gaming is critical in building out this tech.

This will lead to better understanding, decision and communication. And that’s transformative for how governments and armed forces work. In a time of growing threat of war, that might be exactly what we need to restore peace.