The rapid development of a range of emerging technologies is driving four revolutions in military and security capabilities to which the global defence and security industry is increasingly required to respond.
Perception, processing and cognition
New approaches for both humans and machines to collect, synthesise, digest and discern information are necessary to make sense of complex and fast-moving strategic and operational contexts. Getting (and staying) ahead of threats and maintaining and leveraging situational awareness – especially in environments frequently marked simultaneously by a surfeit of available information of variable quality and timeliness and opacity – is beyond the capacity of legacy technologies and human capabilities.
Unmanned systems, advanced sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, improved autonomy, big data analytics, social media and network analysis, virtual and augmented reality, and cloud computing are many of the critical technologies influencing the future of this revolution.
Human and materials performance
The performance and materials revolution seeks to use novel technologies to get more out of people, platforms and systems.
Novel, smart biomaterials retain at scale the dynamic and customisable attributes they exhibit at the atomic or genome level. These materials can promote qualities in advanced platforms and systems such as self-healing, adaptation to environments, low observability, ultra-high strength and speed, and energy capture and storage. They also can support force protection, performance and sustainment – through increasingly attainable capabilities such as adaptive camouflage or smart body armour.
Enhancement of physical and cognitive human performance is also a feature of this revolution.
Performance-enhancing drugs (and other chemical alterations) and even the possible insertion of computer chips into humans to enhance cognitive performance will all be considered to better leverage the full potential of the most valuable resource available to defence and security communities.
Manufacturing, supply chain and logistics
Optimising the effects of new materials with novel properties will be reliant on the concurrent development of new means of manufacturing with a heightened level of precision and customisation. Virtual and augmented reality manufacturing, computer-aided design, additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), 4D printing, synthetic biology manufacturing and automation are among the technologies that will, over time, usher in a new industrial Design Age in which manufacturing processes and material properties will be seen as powerful enablers of constructive innovations in capabilities.
3D printing has particularly urgent and far-reaching implications, promising the phasing out of the assembly phase of manufacturing, an end to obsolescence through the printing of new parts, and rapid prototyping. 3D printing is also driving opportunities for military and security force “point-of-use” printing of parts and supplies, a practice that multiple militaries have already adopted, albeit on a limited scale. As the technology matures, point-of-use printing will have powerful and enduring implications for the future of industry supply chains as well as military and security logistics.
Communication, navigation, targeting and strike/interdiction
This fourth revolution is critical to meeting the broad range of future threats, missions and operational environments; namely close contact, frequently urban, operations between small forces and distant and precise missions that dominate accelerating anti-access/ area denial versus power projection competitions.
Unmanned ground, aerial, surface and underwater systems are central to this revolution.
Cyber-capabilities; position, navigation, and timing; electromagnetic weapons; directed energy; and space and counterspace systems will also enable competition-shifting effects in getting to and functioning in future military and security environments.
The intersections of these technological revolutions will have four implications for militaries, security communities and industry around the world.
First, the imperative to meet an expanding range of security threats within constrained budgets ensures prioritisation of technologies and concepts that enable modularity and flexibility and applicability across several of the revolutions discussed.
For example, unmanned ground vehicles designed with chassis that allow for modularity will enable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in hazardous or urban environments; force-sustainment, support and protection; and active engagement of threats, such as explosive ordnance disposal, driving particular relevance for security, defence and law enforcement organisations in increasingly risk-burdened and contested environments.
Second, the desire for and acquisition of emerging technologies will produce challenges to national and industry efforts to protect strategically vital technology, especially as states, companies and non-state actors adopt more creative means of acquiring technologies in order to leapfrog competitors or stages of technological development.
Third, the emergence and diffusion of new technologies, many of which will be commercially available, will create new threats and challenges for security and defence communities. Commercially available electromagnetic jammers, unmanned systems, cyber capabilities and even laser pointers are already challenging military and security operations, critical infrastructure protection and air travel. These challenges will be amplified by ‘from scratch’ manufacturing capabilities, such as 3D printing, which greatly reduce or eliminate interaction between untoward actors and supply chains monitored by security communities.
Fourth, these capabilities will shape military and security competitions as actors seek to develop and field new technologies or operational concepts that will drive iterative competitive dynamics along new and advantageous trajectories.
For example, the ease of acquisition and development and growing range of disruptive uses of drones by state and non-state actors has created an urgent need for innovative counters.
Responses such as the use of radio frequency jammers; drone carried nets and wires to defeat drone swarms; and even the use of trained birds of prey (as the Dutch National Police Corps has piloted) all show promise.
However, success of these measures (and others) is likely to be short-lived in a dynamic innovation environment absent of continual evaluation of threat actor mindsets and capabilities and rigorous efforts to identify and ameliorate previously unexplored vulnerabilities.