Written by Zsolt G. Pataki.
The global innovation and technology landscape will evolve significantly in the next 20 years, and new and emerging technologies will drive changes in the character of warfare and the capabilities used on the battlefield. Understanding how the technological landscape evolves and what impact this will have on the future battlefield is key to formulating future-proof policies and investment decisions.
In this context, the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA)commissioned RAND Europe to examine the challenges and opportunities related to new and emerging technologies expected to shape the 2040 battlefield, following a request from the Subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE). The study presents implications stemming from consideration of individual technologies, as well as crosscutting analysis of their interactions with broader political, social, economic and environmental trends. In doing so, the study highlights a need for EU institutions and Member States to pursue a broad range of capability development initiatives in a coherent and coordinated manner, ensure the development of an agile regulatory and organisational environment, and guide investments in technologies most relevant to the European context.
This study investigates the implications of possible advances in six key technology clusters: (1) artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data; (2) advanced robotics and autonomous systems; (3) biotechnology; (4) technologies for the delivery of novel effect; (5) satellites and space-based technologies and assets; and (6) human-machine interfaces. It also identifies several crosscutting implications of new and emerging technologies for future battlefield dynamics and European defence.
One key conclusion of the study is that technological change alone is unlikely to result in fundamental shifts in future battlefield dynamics. Rather, it is the adaptation of military establishments and armed forces (including shifts in strategic mindsets and organisational culture), as well as wider socioeconomic and cultural factors that are likely to shape future trends in the uptake and adoption of new and emerging technologies on the future battlefield. The authors write that technological change, while pervasive, will not diminish the importance of human factors or significantly reduce the uncertainty and unpredictability of the nature of war. Emerging technologies, however, will continue to shape both conventional and unconventional warfare. This will require an equal focus on the impact of technologies on above- and sub-threshold activities, and will potentially blur the boundaries between the two.
To fully understand the future impacts of technological change, interactions among technological trends need to be considered. The extent and manner in which new and emerging technologies are used by European Union (EU) countries’ armed forces will also depend on how these and other technologies will be adopted by adversaries. Access to and control of data represents a key crosscutting enabler on the future battlefield, with new and emerging technologies also providing further opportunities for collecting, managing and analysing data to achieve superiority on the battlefield.
The ability of the EU and its Member States to effectively navigate an increasingly complex technology and innovation landscape represents a key enabler to achieve superiority on the battlefield. Divergences among EU countries, however, may exist with regard to access to new and emerging technologies, financial, cost-related barriers, and differing strategic mindsets. As such, national enablers and barriers may also shape individual adoption pathways for new and emerging technologies among the EU Member States.
This study presents three sets of policy options for EU institutions and Member States to consider in their ongoing effort to prepare for and shape this rapidly evolving landscape, focusing on capability development initiatives, regulatory and organisational environment, and on investment in research, development, technology and innovation (RDT&I).
- Pursue a broad range of capability development initiatives: Future technological developments may render existing capabilities obsolete and generate requirements for fostering and sustaining new skills, systems and approaches. Future technological developments may also result in a broader spectrum of sub-threshold activities. These will require initiatives to ensure cohesion within the EU and its societies and institutions, as well as its broader alliances and partnerships. Within this context, EU and Member State institutions should continue to pursue a broad range of capability development investments;
- Foster regulatory and organisational agility and absorption capacity: The evolving technology landscape suggests a need for EU institutions and Member State defence establishments to create an environment that is conducive to the effective and efficient harnessing of positive impacts of technological advances and to the mitigation of any vulnerabilities. As such, EU countries’ armed forces and their broader institutional and organisational frameworks should work to foster the capacity and agility required to respond to technological advances;
- Facilitate EU investments and RDT&I activities in relevant technologies by strengthening collaboration with industry: RDT&I in many new and emerging technologies are driven by private sector actors, often originating from outside the traditional defence industrial base. This presents increasing challenges to the EU, its Member States, and their institutions, to harness and adapt to technological advances – especially as these advances occur at a fast pace, are globally accessible, and fall outside their direct or exclusive control.