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Promise and peril: Opportunities and challenges of disruptive technologies and innovation

22 June 2017 Tate Nurkin

Above - Marduk Technologies' Shark concept is intended to offer a networked defence against small UAVs. (Marduk Technologies)

The rapid development of a range of emerging technologies is driving four revolutions in military and security capabilities to which the global defence and security industry is increasingly required to respond.

Perception, processing and cognition

New approaches for both humans and machines to collect, synthesise, digest and discern information are necessary to make sense of complex and fast moving strategic and operational contexts. Getting (and staying) ahead of threats and maintaining and leveraging situational awareness - especially in environments frequently marked simultaneously by a surfeit of available information of variable quality and timeliness and opacity - is beyond the capacity of legacy technologies and human capabilities.

Human and materials performance

The performance and materials revolution seeks to use novel technologies to get more out of people, platforms and systems. Novel, smart biomaterials retain at scale the dynamic and customisable attributes they exhibit at the atomic or genome level. These materials can promote qualities in advanced platforms and systems such as self-healing, adaptation to environments, low observability, ultra-high strength and speed, and energy capture and storage. They also can support force protection, performance and sustainment - through increasingly attainable capabilities such as adaptive camouflage or smart body armour.

Manufacturing, supply chain and logistics

Optimising the effects of new materials with novel properties will be reliant on the concurrent development of new means of manufacturing with a heightened level of precision and customisation. Virtual and augmented reality manufacturing, computer-aided design, additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), 4D printing, synthetic biology manufacturing and automation are among the technologies that will, over time, usher in a new industrial Design Age in which manufacturing processes and material properties will be seen as powerful enablers of constructive innovations in capabilities.

Communication, navigation, targeting and strike/interdiction

This fourth revolution is critical to meeting the broad range of future threats, missions and operational environments; namely close contact, frequently urban, operations between small forces and distant and precise missions that dominate accelerating antiaccess/area denial versus power projection competitions.

Implications

The intersections of these technological revolutions will have four implications for militaries, security communities and industry around the world. First, the imperative to meet an expanding range of security threats within constrained budgets ensures prioritisation of technologies and concepts that enable modularity and flexibility and applicability across several of the revolutions discussed.

Second, the desire for and acquisition of emerging technologies will produce challenges to national and industry efforts to protect strategically vital technology, especially as states, companies and non-state actors adopt more creative means of acquiring technologies in order to leapfrog competitors or stages of technological development.

Third, the emergence and diffusion of new technologies, many of which will be commercially available, will create new threats and challenges for security and defence communities. Commercially available electromagnetic jammers, unmanned systems, cyber capabilities and even laser pointers are already challenging military and security operations, critical infrastructure protection and air travel.
Fourth, these capabilities will shape military and security competitions as actors seek to develop and field new technologies or operational concepts that will drive iterative competitive dynamics along new and advantageous trajectories.
Responses such as the use of radio frequency jammers; drone carried nets and wires to defeat drone swarms; and even the use of trained birds of prey (as the Dutch National Police Corps has piloted) all show promise. However, success of these measures (and others) is likely to be short-lived in a dynamic innovation environment absent of continual evaluation of threat actor mindsets and capabilities and rigorous efforts to identify and ameliorate previously unexplored vulnerabilities.

Tate Nurkin is Senior Director of Strategic Assessments and Futures Studies, posted 22nd June 2017.

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