A Red Team View of Technology Trends in National Security
Presentation by Dr Simon Ewing-Jarvie to The Waikato Dialogue: The Implications of Emerging Disruptive Technologies for International Security and New Zealand, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.
20 SEP 2018
An historian, a futurist and a reporter walk into a bar. Sounds like the start of a joke, I know. They get a beer and start talking technology. They are searching for a common metaphor for people’s changing relationship with technology. The only one they can agree on is steampunk – a modern day mash-up of the future and the past, technology and culture.
This steampunk presentation will take a rapid ‘red team’ view of emerging technology in the context of NZ national security. As you know, red teaming includes war-gaming, physical and digital penetration testing, alternative futures and alternative analysis. I’m only going to focus on the last two today.
Understanding complex issues, such as technological challenges to national security, requires the inclusion of an alternative analysis approach. It’s essential to challenge analytic assumptions e.g. ‘devil’s advocacy’, and expand the range of possible outcomes considered e.g. ‘what-if analysis,’ and ‘alternative scenarios’.
Who are ‘THEY’ and what do ‘THEY’ want us to think?
‘THEY’ include about 50 countries actively working on military-grade robotics. Much of it is protective, support or surveillance-based in nature. However, most of what you see and hear in the media is about the enormous potential for autonomous lethality while removing humans from the battlespace. Much of this hype is actually information operations. Had the Borg not already coined it, the tagline from industry leaders could be: “Resistance is Futile – Prepare to be Assimilated.” The leaders in military technology fields WANT others to be scared of their technology and lose the will to fight.
It doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because, amongst other things, it fails to take cultural perspectives into account. The fear is based on a western perspective of life. To someone in the Middle East, for instance, the sight of a drone overhead is just another sign of cowardice. A sign that the enemy is too scared to come fight in person. It reaffirms the view that they only need to kill a few more to achieve victory.
T.E. Lawrence understood this and wrote about redefining victory during the Arab Revolt in the latter half of World War I. Change the meaning of events rather than the events themselves. He called this semantic warfare diathetics, a phrase borrowed from the Greek philosopher Xenophon. It’s a battle for the stories people will tell and for the public consciousness that emerges out of those stories. A struggle for meaning.
The first aim is to provoke a massive over-reaction – such as the war on terror. The larger goal is to reorient the behaviour of the enemy. To alter the mindset to a state of despair and counterproductive reaction. 9/11 is a classic modern example. Every time a US citizen dials the emergency number 911 or we are screened at airport security we are reminded that the most powerful nation on the planet was unable to keep its citizens safe at home. It is a reminder that Al Qaeda won in terms of their strategic goals.
Memetic warfare (memes), wars of popular culture, is the latest element of the diathetical struggle. On a list of the top 50 film heroes and villains of all time, only one made it on to both lists – The Terminator! A cyborg assassin.
What military capabilities are actually evolving rapidly and are they truly disruptive technologies?
We are seeing significant advances in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance and the AI capability that seeks to make sense of the massive amount of data generated in a world of sensors. There are also huge advances in force protection and mobility – both autonomous and manned. Precision-guided munitions are the third large capability group.
Is the impact of the latter that great or is it the story that counts? Imagine a warship pulling up off the coast of the North Island and firing 20 cruise missiles into Auckland. Many would be killed and injured. Buildings and infrastructure would be destroyed. But New Zealand would go on. Auckland would be rebuilt. However, our national ‘story’ would have changed forever. How can we create that ‘new story’, to shake off our collective ‘she’ll be right’ malaise toward national security, without the destruction?
In WWII, German Panzer and Tiger tanks were technologically superior to any other tank on the battlefield. There were several reports of ten to one kill ratios. The trouble for the Germans was they couldn’t deal with the 11th, 12th and 13th T34 that appeared. The concept of a ‘swarm’ is not new. The ability to manufacture, deploy and sustain was, and is, more important than the technology.
Robotics in the logistics chain is a far bigger game changer than on the battlefield.
In anticipation of tactical nuclear weapon use disrupting communications during the Cold War, Soviet tank crews coordinated movement on the battlefield with flag signals.
Whenever an antagonist has struggled to match the technological advantage of the opponent, warfare has inevitably become asymmetric in nature with the outcome not always to the advantage of the high-tech force.
Australian Army Officer, Mark Gilchrist, sums it up well. Advanced militaries must be careful to avoid a situation where military technical determinism guides strategic thinking. Indeed, if the experience of the last twenty years has taught us nothing else, it is that technological superiority does not guarantee military success.
Sun Tzu warned, “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In a similar vein, technology without integration, or a conceptual underpinning, is the hype before the let-down. Technology enables tactical actions to advance a strategy — but technology cannot replace tactics. Militaries cannot mitigate a lack of strategy nor support operational concepts purely through a reliance on the promise of technology.
Nearly 30 years ago, I submitted a computer science Master’s thesis on knowledge engineering and expert systems. We knew then ‘how’ to develop the field of machine learning but lacked the architecture. As I look around now, I see many of the same mistakes being made but executed with far greater processing power.
Due to the conditioning effect of entertainment and gun camera news clips – war porn – new tech is linked in people’s minds with war and policing. However, in a business continuity study I did 20 years ago, I found NZer’s were most likely to prepare for risks that:
- They had already experienced (e.g. burglary, earthquake)
- Were legislated for (e.g. health & safety)
- Had been in the media lately (e.g. workplace harassment)
What about New Zealand’s national security in the broader sense?
- A pandemic is the most dangerous scenario for NZ therefore health officials and clinicians are on the frontline.
- Biosecurity breaches would have the greatest economic impact and are a threat every day. Customs and biosecurity officials are key to security in this sense.
- Displaced people in the region arising from the perceived impact of global warming is potentially a big problem. Depopulated islands, through emigration or evacuation is not a great outcome if you don’t want some other country to occupy those empty island nations.
- 97% of our imports and exports travel by sea. Loss of freedom of navigation of sea lanes would cripple our economy.
It makes sense for our research and development efforts to be focussed on these areas of need rather than trying to keep up with the emerging battlefield technology of the armed forces of larger, wealthier nations. Why not think asymmetrically as a nation?
Any technology can be weaponised.
Here’s a few ‘top of the head’ opportunities for NZ:
- Autonomous, protected humanitarian assistance systems will be a game-changer and don’t carry the ethical and legal baggage of combat systems.
- Likewise, autonomous scientific systems for places like Antarctica make sense and contribute to science and security.
- Why slug it out in contested space when there are relatively uncontested areas to focus on like the maritime sub-surface domain and autonomous sub-surface vessels?
- Resource constraints will be a key factor in the technology race. First, wars were fought over coal then oil. Tension and competition is mounting in the supply of elements and rare earths needed for batteries, optics and circuits. As an example, 42% of global cobalt supply is used for batteries. Two-thirds of that resource is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. NZ could open up mining in these products or become a specialist recycler. It is estimated, for instance, that up to 10% of the world’s supply of lithium and cobalt could come from recycled materials by 2025.
- Why not accelerate automation of our manufacturing sector to support these opportunities? Logistics technology will be king.
- The UN projects that 9% of the world’s population will live in 41 megacities or dense urban environments by 2030. Dealing with both health and security issues in these will tax any force. Why not start work on mass medication and less-than-lethal solutions – especially in the chemical and biological space?
‘So what’ for New Zealand policy? For a start there is no national security strategy. New Zealand has a handbook that describes, in increasing detail, how the various siloes of Government interact in a security situation. That is not a strategy – that is what you get after several committee meetings. A national security strategy requires, amongst other things, buy in from the community. That conversation has yet to take place.
In October 2014, then Prime Minister Key created a new portfolio for National Security and Intelligence. He took it on himself. Operational oversight of the GCSB and SIS was passed to the Attorney General. The current government has taken a similar approach with Jacinda Ardern holding National Security and Andrew Little the Justice, GCSB and SIS portfolios.
According to some government officials, the ODESC system (a committee formed by the heads of all Domestic and External security agencies) is sufficient to react in an emergency. The committee will determine, amongst other things, the lead agency. The major weakness in this approach is that it is reactive.
Other officials think it sufficient that New Zealand’s response to an attack of any sort, in legislative terms, is based on the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act. ‘All risks – all hazards’ is the mantra. An as yet unforeseen threat to New Zealand’s security will be handled by a Minister outside Cabinet using laws designed to respond to and recover from natural disaster?
These two examples highlight the need for a fresh set of eyes on national security.
New Zealand needs a National Security Advisor. Not for political optics but for independence and the ability to bring together the many coloured threads required for the cloak of national security.
To be truly independent and in order to maintain national security policy momentum across electoral cycles, the National Security Advisor should be an Officer of Parliament. They would operate as an independent crown entity under separate legislation and budget in the same manner as officers such as the Auditor-General. The appointment should be at least five years.
This new National Security Agency would become the focal point for national security-related research going on in New Zealand universities, think tanks, international links and industry. It would be the strategy bridge for new policy initiatives. It could also provide some security audit functions. Most importantly, it is the place where a coherent national security strategy will be formulated. The Minister for National Security – the Prime Minister – would be more than just a title.
Back to the bar. The reporter has found the discussion fascinating and has made lots of notes. She offers to buy a round but then realises she has no money. The historian, wanting to make things right, offers to get the drinks. He asks the futurist what he will have. The futurist replies, “It’s too early to say.”
The same is true of the impact of new technologies on national security but a research programme in the area is essential.