June 23. 2024. 12:34

The Daily

Read the World Today

Let’s talk tanks before AI


NATO and the EU would do well to focus on traditional military hardware as they respectively embark on a rethink of old certainties and defence spending priorities, write Arthur de Liedekerke, Maarten Toelen and Rossana Bernardi.

Although there is no shortage of innovation on display on the (digital) battlefield in Ukraine, decisive advances in the conflict have resulted from strategies and tools that have been around for generations.

Despite the increased prominence and undeniable contribution of emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) to modern military operations, including in the cyber domain, the conflict in Ukraine so far has confirmed that the nature of warfare is far from undergoing a revolution. The tragic events unfolding in Ukraine and the 2020 conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh underscore this reality.

First, in terms of its underlying principles. War is an inherently human endeavour, with the use of violence to obtain concessions from an adversary. If the modern means employed to achieve such concessions represent the changing veneer of warfare, “tanks and algorithms do not concede anything, the leaders employing them do”, in the words of former US Capt. Michael P. Ferguson.

New technologies employed in armed conflict broadly include digitally enhanced systems, such as unmanned and autonomous vehicles, along with enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and other offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. The observed increase in usage of these in modern conflict certainly marks an evolution in how military operations are planned and conducted. It stimulates worthy debate around future trajectories of warfare and the need to further integrate innovative applications in military doctrine.

Next, although there is no shortage of innovation on display on the battlefield in Ukraine, decisive advances in the conflict have resulted from strategies and tools that have been around for generations. After all, who would have anticipated that artillery, trenches or millennial concepts such as combined arms would feature so prominently in 21st-century war?

As a result, many NATO members have slowly realized they would have been ill-equipped to push back the offensives witnessed in Nagorno-Karabakh or eastern Ukraine, characterized primarily by the use of traditional methods of warfare, augmented by EDTs.

With the Alliance and EU respectively embarking on a rethink of old certainties and defence spending priorities, one of the areas that warrant a careful and dispassionate examination is the role and integration of EDTs in armed conflict. One of these is cyber.

The very admission of General Bonnemaison, head of the French Cyber Command (COMCYBER), speaking at a closed-door hearing at the National Assembly in December 2022 stated: “(…) even if cyber allows you to win, just like air strikes for example, you don’t win a war if you don’t hold the ground. Without cyber, we are sure to lose, but we will not win with cyber alone.”

This sobering assessment should lead experts to reevaluate the blueprints, and theories previously entertained concerning what ‘cyberwar’ or the role of cyber in war truly is.

This is not to deny the disruptive potential of offensive cyber operations. It is instead their effectiveness and success in achieving strategic goals in a conventional conflict which remain to be determined. Expectations of “shock and awe” were unrealistic and the situation unfolding provides a grounded example of cyber’s contribution to a conventional conflict.

Granted, many aspects of the war unfolding in the digital realm may have gone unreported or overlooked. Ukraine’s robust cyber defences and support from key partners, private and governmental, have also been instrumental.

A closer examination of known operations conducted by Russia against Ukraine over the past year suggests that even the most vaunted success – the destructive hack that rendered thousands of Viasat KA-SAT satellite broadband modems, including those used by some of Ukraine’s military – has fallen short of granting significant military advantage to the Kremlin on the ground.

We need to continue investing significantly in EDTs and attendant R&D, including cyber, to ensure we do not lose our edge against competitors. But certainly not at the expense of more conventional capabilities which have proven tragically invaluable as war has returned to Europe.