“So far the impact of the conference has exceeded expectations. We have gone through an experiment. We saw the ecosystem come to life.” This gave Chief of Defence General Tom Middendorp the confidence to challenge the Future Force participants on Day 2. “We are all leaders in our own areas. Used to translating very abstract goals into practical answers. Let’s find solutions. Let’s find actions we can do together to make it work. Identify 3 takeaways that can be translated into action.”
Middendorp was delighted to see people from different backgrounds interacting, exchanging business cards and making appointments for follow-up meetings. All for a common goal: a safe and secure environment. And we all have something to bring to the table. Whether you are a researcher, a hacker, a leader of a company or wear a military uniform. There is something you can bring to the table to help to achieve that goal.”
Don’t find yourself left behind
The first person to accept the CHOD’s challenge was Dr William Roper, Director of the Strategic Capabilities Office in the US. He believes that it is critically important that we talk about the future now. Not only because the world is changing at a pace that is accelerating. “But also in order to make good national security investments. And so be able to leverage investments that are coming to us from other nations and the commercial sector. The national security establishment will otherwise find itself left behind. That is the challenge.”
Roper focused on 3 issues:
- Quit talking about the future as an amorphous construct, but force practical things to precipitate out of it. Make tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow a series of events that is shaped into the direction we want it to go. I want to give you some insights into what makes an idea for a military organisation good or bad.
- Theory of the problem: if we want to create new ideas for the future, we have to know: what problem are we trying to solve? Framing the problem appropriately is critically. The countries and coalitions, allies and partners that have the most flexibility have the greatest freedom of movement.
The US has been projecting power in the same way for roughly the last 20 years. Roper: “Now we are faced with rising powers who have analysed the way we’ve done business. They think they have counters that exploit our weaknesses. That’s not surprising. If you always play the same way, one day you’ll lose your dominant position.”
Look at sports teams
But Roper took hope from the example of sports teams. Sports teams don’t throw out the whole playbook, but simply change it so that the new playbook has all the advantages of the old one but with restored surprise.
Blurring the domain of offence and defence
“At my office, we are very focused on trying to take the systems that we all know, artillery, ships, submarines aircrafts and satellites, and find a completely new way of using these things. The advantages are manifold: it is cheaper and faster that developing an entirely new idea and you keep the force structure intact. “For example: our navy needed more antiship capabilities. We looked at all the systems and stumbled over the Standard Missile 6. Why can’t we take this interceptor developed for one purpose and give it an entirely different mission, which is going forward and striking at enemy ships? Now, 3 years later, we’ve got SM6’s on ships capable of simultaneously defending and attacking.”
According to Roper blurring the domain of offence and defence can be a much better strategy than just building a better missile for the future. Another example he mentioned was the use of inexpensive, traditional projectiles for ballistic missile defence by combining them with our electromagnetic railway program. This instead of million dollar interceptors. “A disruptive flipping of the paradigm. Do not let people sell you high-tech technology as the solution until they explain why they can’t solve your problem creatively with the systems you have.”
- Disruptors: what could mess it up? Technologies that are going to effect national security the most, or at least equal to military systems, are being developed by the commercial world. The ones that we worry about the most are all centred around the digital domain: it’s the combination of the internet of things, big data analytics and deep learning. If you’re not smart on deep learning, the Roper recommends that you get smart. He predicts that this is the single biggest impactor on national security.
That technique makes that old adage of finding a needle in a haystack meaningless. The machine can do more: it can characterize the whole hayfield. That fundamentally changes the whole approach to situational awareness and information warfare.
The challenge is not: being creative. “Western society has always been creative. That also applies to the implementation of military constructs. Defence organisations need to work as quickly as commercial industry. For that, we shouldn’t get hung up on perfect solutions, but be able to accept ‘good enough’. That might sound complacent, but it requires analysis and persuasive power. You’re actually saying: we could do better, but for strategic reasons, we shouldn’t.”
Holslag questioning Roper
After his speech, William Roper spoke to Jonathan Holslag, who asked him why it is so important to buy time. Roper: “We need to modernize our military to win future conflicts and to deter them.” If opponents can see that a military force is able to respond quickly to change, that will have a deterrent effect. Time can be used to react to one leap-ahead and the next and so on. Create disruptive change to buy time. “The idea is to keep winning this time-turning advantage.”
Holslag: “One of your main remarks was the need for flexibility and versatility.” He asked Roper how he could combine maintaining the broadest possible arsenal with being at the technological forefront.
Roper said the idea is to profit fully from existing technological means, such as autonomous systems. Where you once had an expensive high-end vessel, now you have a team of expensive high-end vessels. With those, you find new ways to fight. Only if you can’t solve a problem should you think up new technology.
Holslag then asked Roper what he thought of breakthroughs such as swarming drones able to engage in very long-term and long-range strikes. Roper: “Most disruptive changes. You can do something with an autonomous system instead of an expensive person. But these systems also take risks men don’t. That gives flexibility. Teaming approaches is the second. Teaming systems together to benefit from both.” That sounds easy, but because of network and data exchange challenges, it isn’t.
From kill chains to kill webs
The last: change kill chains, from detection to destruction, to kill webs. Every sensor, US and allied sensors are connected in a system of systems. This introduces cyber vulnerabilities and confidentiality issues. Holslag: “How do you make them work together?” Again, Roper said that we shouldn’t aim for perfection. Network the systems, don’t design entirely new ones. Industry can deliver existing, practical solutions.
Learning machines reshape the battlefield
As the last point, the 2 experts discussed technology that does reshape the battlefield. Roper: “The biggest game-changer is going to be learning machines. All systems should learn. The ultimate goal for companies like Google is basically to suck in the internet of data. The power of that: the more data that comes in, the smarter artificial intelligence gets. The advice: we’ve got to go all-in. If we don’t, we will look like museum military. We don’t want AI systems to do the strategic thing and tell us what to do. A swarm of UAV’s is doing the job of low-level surveillance. We can’t ask them what to do with the data. We need very good guidelines. We’re not willing to give legal or strategic decisions to machines.”