In December 2016, the EDA contracted the not-for-profit, independent research organisations RAND Europe and HCSS to support the revision of the long-term strand (‘Strand B’) of the Capability Development Plan (CDP), a strategic picture of European military capabilities regularly updated by the EDA. Part of a wider effort by the Agency to develop European defence capabilities, this work is intended to provide military decision-makers and capability planners with an overview of the potential impact of technological advancements and strategic environment changes on future operations and on European military capabilities up to 2035 and beyond.

Understanding the evolving technology landscape is an important input to the CDP for a number of reasons. Technology affects various aspects of conflicts and is therefore a critical component of defence planning (though non-technological aspects and solutions must not be overlooked either). New technologies have often shaped strategies and tactics, and inspired the development of defence innovations. In an increasingly connected, complex and information-rich global society, technological developments not only shape the ways and means by which wars are waged, but can also precipitate changes in what is perceived to constitute (military) conflict, and condition the role of defence institutions in preventing, preparing for, engaging in and moving away from conflict. 

Historically, militaries have frequently driven innovation, often with ‘spillovers’ into civilian life – jet travel, satellite navigation or the Internet are just a few examples. Today, because of the growth of research and development in the commercial sector and the interconnected global innovation and production networks, the dynamics in defence innovation often work the other way around – with technologies primarily developed in a civilian context and then applied in military applications. This makes it ever more important that the EDA understands a broad spectrum of potential future technology trends, if it is to help European defence planners develop innovative military applications to respond to security threats. 

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Technology themes

Understanding this fast-evolving ‘art of the possible’ is a challenge for European militaries, governments and private organisations. Forward-looking institutions seek to map changes in the technology landscape through horizon scanning and technology watch activities. To help the EDA collate and prioritise the findings of this wider work, the RAND Europe-HCSS study team undertook a ‘scan the scanners’ review, compiling and analysing a wide range of horizon scanning outputs and technology trends. The most relevant and impactful technology trends were clustered into ‘technology themes’ – a combination of related future technology trends whose applications are likely to have a significant impact on societal developments, including on defence and security. Examples of key technology themes included: sensorisation, datafication and sense-making of society; human-machine teaming and artificial intelligence; globalisation of technology and modularisation of systems; space as a battlefield; human enhancement; and renewable energy and energy weapons.

These themes are likely to have profound implications on the shape of future conflicts, in terms of actors, domains, duration and timing, and phasing, or, in short, ends, ways and means. As readers of Clausewitz will know, the fundamental nature of conflict is enduring: it has always been and will remain a violent contest – a mix of chance, risk and policy – that at times can be irritational, unpredictable and potentially volatile. Nonetheless, its specific characteristics will change over time, not least due to shifting technological paradigms.

Sensors and network connectivity

Some – certainly not all – of the more striking potential changes arising from the technology themes might include the following examples.

Both the civilian and defence realms are experiencing an increasing proliferation of sensors and network connectivity, with vast amounts of different types of data being produced, captured and exploited for a variety of logistical, commercial, health, safety, security and other purposes. Cheaper and smaller sensors combined with better memory and processing power may therefore result in ‘ambient intelligence’ throughout society – the creation of an Internet of Everything, connecting a multitude of devices embedded in, on or around people, objects and the environment. 

At the same time, developments in automated and algorithmic analysis are improving the collation, processing and analysis of this ‘Big Data’, leading to a further reduction in the data-to-decision process and enabling European commanders to grapple with the complexity, fog and friction of the battlefield. This sensorisation and datafication of society generates a wealth of real and near-real-time data, enabling remote monitoring of everything from individual soldiers’ health or performance, through to analysis of civilian population movements, or early detection and warning of concealed threats. The result is a need to securely access, fuse and exploit data from a wealth of civilian and military sensors throughout the operating environment, so as to enhance situational awareness and decision-making – as well as to find ways to allow European forces to operate safely in sensor-rich environments where the adversary may always be watching. 

Artificial Intelligence and human-machine teaming

Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds the potential to affect ever more aspects of civilian and military life. Varying degrees of sophistication of AI and machine-learning might be incorporated into virtually any application or service to improve efficiency and escape some of the limitations of human thinking. At the same time, keeping ‘humans in the loop’ remains essential or even required in many roles, meaning that intelligent machines must learn to work closely with humans and vice versa, with new concepts of man-machine teaming. Addressing the ethical and trust-related implications and risks associated with the integrity and security of these systems will not be easy, but is essential if the potential benefits of AI for defence are to be realised in full. If European defence organisations can get this balance right, this new technology offers vast potential in mitigating some of the adverse effects of conflict: improved speed of intelligence gathering and analysis to improve command functions; automation and optimisation of logistic systems; AI support to medical diagnosis and treatment; and a reduction in the number of human personnel to be deployed to dangerous environments and missions.

A wealth of other domains

Alongside advances in AI and unmanned systems, a range of technologies may allow both physical and cognitive improvements in the capabilities of human personnel. Advances in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, wearable technology and other fields are opening up a range of possibilities to push beyond traditional biological limits such as strength, endurance, intelligence or vulnerability to injury, infection, stress, and fear or pain. Cybernetic enhancement of human personnel through implanting of sensors, chips and other technology may similarly allow humans to better interface with machines and unmanned systems, or acquire wholly new abilities and senses. These developments may significantly transform individuals, their lifestyles and consequently the way we think, plan for and engage in conflicts and crises. On the flip side, it also has the potential to create new faultlines of social or political strife between those who are enhanced and those who are not.

The space domain is similarly emerging as a growing focus for future operations. Space is already used to support military operational activities through observation, navigation and communication functions. There is a growing risk, however, of space becoming further militarised, and evolving into a potential ‘battleground’ rather than a ‘global commons’. With the potential establishment of military and civilian bases outside Earth’s atmosphere, defence of assets in space will increasingly become an issue. Furthermore, space may be used for offensive actions, for example by placing surveillance and offensive cyber or kinetic strike capabilities. Operating in this contested and congested environment will likely be a growing challenge for future European militaries. 

All of these trends – and the many others considered in more detail throughout this ongoing study on the revision of military capability requirements for 2035 and beyond – are affected by the disruptive and unpredictable character of technology development. The results of this work, in concert with a wider analysis of the three CDP elements – short term (Strands A and D) and mid-term (Strand C) planning aspects – will inform the agreement on a new set of EU Cability Development Priorities expected in 2018.

Technology trends outside of the military are moving quickly, profoundly and unpredictably. This may require a more innovative approach on behalf of European defence planners regarding the assimilation of civilian technologies as well as considerations on how to face the potentially malignant applications of civilian technologies. Agility, adaptability and a constant eye on the future are crucial.

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