By Franz-Stefan Gady, Associate Editor, The Diplomat, New York

On the occasion of the participation at GLOBSEC 2017 Bratislava Forum

When we talk about disruptive technologies in the military realm, we first and foremost talk about technologies capable of supplanting a nation’s military superiority or marginalizing its military power.

Disruptive technologies, through technological surprise, exploit known or unknown vulnerabilities of an opponent’s military hardware and by doing so, disrupt and negate the enemy’s actions on the tactical, operational (and possibly strategic) level of war.

In this regard, China’s “Century of Humiliation” (1839-1849) should serve as a cautionary tale. The Western way of war, fueled by technological innovations at an unprecedented scale, made Chinese tactics and operational art obsolete. This can be summed up in one line of a Victorian poem: “Whatever happens, we have got. The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

However, technology is only one and never the only building block of military power. Indeed, technology can only become ‘disruptive’ when applied with the right tactics and the proper operational concept. If not, it becomes less decisive. The classic example here would be tank warfare in the Second World War.

When discussing disruptive military technologies from a macro perspective in 2017, we have to keep four trends in mind:

  • First, we are gradually moving toward a multipolar world as a result of the diffusion of economic and military power.
  • Second, underlying this diffusion of power is the proliferation of modern technology.
  • Third, modern technology will continue to spread unless we witness a collapse of the global trading system.
  • Fourth, as a corollary, we will not be able to maintain technological superiority in the military realm in the long run.

This trend is amplified by a “penalty for taking the lead.” The Ukrainian-born American economist Alexander Gerschenkron maintained that backward countries can learn from the mistakes of more advanced nations and implement innovations cheaper, faster, and in a more efficient and systematic manner.

Applying Gerschenkron’s concept of backwardness to for example U.S.-China military competition, it becomes obvious that the U.S.’s attempt to maintain military superiority via superior technology may perhaps not succeed in the long run.

China and the PLA by imitating U.S. military technology rather than having to invent technology from scratch can economize military expenditure and produce new hardware faster and in larger quantities than the United States.

Consequently, we need to rethink our focus on technology superiority and diversify our approaches to maintaining military dominance by focusing on improved tactics, strategies, and logistics while keeping an eye on the next revolution in military affairs.

Truly, this begs the question of whether we are on the verge of a revolution in military affairs that irrevocably changes the conduct of warfare? Arguably, military revolutions and can be structured into three distinct phases, according to Thomas G. Mahnken:

First, an embryonic phase, in which existing warfare methods are refined and experiments on new practices and technologies are launched.

Second, an immature phase characterized by the successful use of new military practices in a major war resulting in a number of quick decisive victories for the side applying them.

Third, the mature phase, in which, through the diffusion of new military practices across militaries, a new warfighting paradigm is created.

In summary, these three phases can be broadly summarized as cycles of innovation, diffusion, and refinement.

Given the absence of decisive military victories, we remain in the innovation cycle and hopefully will remain so for some time.

What is to be done meanwhile?

First, strengthened intelligence capabilities to avoid technological surprises will be vital. Hence, NATO countries will need to invest in enhanced intelligence capabilities from human to cyber and reinforce intelligence sharing partnerships.

Second, NATO countries must maintain advanced tech bases and improve public-private partnerships, particularly when it comes to dual-use technologies.

Third, NATO countries, based on the Pentagon’s 3rd Offset Strategy, must economize by merging new with legacy technology, as well as new with old warfighting methods.

Fourth, as a result of the proliferation of disruptive technologies, NATO countries must avoid single points of failure (e.g. dependency on satellites and IT-technology) and introduce resiliency.

Fifth, resiliency can only be achieved by the ability to revert to ‘analogue’. Consequently, training that emphasizes warfare without the help of advanced military technology will need to be reinforced.

To sum up, in order to diminish the impact of disruptive military technologies and in order to maintain military superiority, NATO countries must:

First, remain at comparable stages of economic and technological development and to have access to similar military-industrial pipelines than competitors in the international system. Second, maintain superior training, morale, and logistical operations than peer competitors.