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Are New and Emerging Technologies Game-Changers for Smaller Powers? - War on the Rocks

Dec 29, 2021

Nagorno-Karabakh, 2020. As tensions rose between Armenia and Azerbaijan, small clashes soon turned into combat. Instead of a traditional battlefield ruled by main battle tanks and artillery, armed drones turned out to be game-changers. Using Turkish-made drones, Azerbaijani forces destroyed numerous enemy tanks and armored vehicles, leaving the tactically dislocated Armenian side unable to respond. Military analysts around the world took notice: New technology and capabilities could impact outcomes on the modern battlefield.

When the integration of new technology is discussed, however, the perspective of smaller states is often absent. For us, this is personal: One of us is the head of Swedish joint operations and the other is an infantry squad leader in the Swedish Army Reserves. These experiences and hard questions drove us to write a book together: Strategic Choices: The Future of Swedish Security . In this book, we explore how smaller states, out of scarcity of resources, often have to find creative and innovative ways to adopt technology to overcome, or at least offset, the advantages a well-resourced opponent might have. While the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan were about evenly matched in turns of numbers, the way both sides used different concepts and platforms offers important lessons for smaller states facing bigger enemies. Smaller states can identify asymmetric advantages that could create military problems for larger adversaries through well-thought-out concepts that combine capability development, doctrines, education, exercises, and — of course — operations. In general, smaller states don’t have access to the full spectrum of the latest technologies. In order to maximize operational effect against a bigger adversary, the use of military capabilities based on new technologies should be accompanied by smart tactics and methods.

The Future of War Is Here

We are now entering into what is usually referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, which is characterized by the fusion of technologies and platforms in the form of a “system of systems.” New technology characterizes this development, allowing faster data transfer through improved mobile networks (5G), interconnected components (the “internet of things”), autonomous systems, additive manufacturing (3D printing), biotechnology, and AI supported by machine learning with the ability to process large amounts of data. These evolutions and revolutions could lead to the dramatic and rapid transformation of all human activities, including military operations.

In previous industrial revolutions, innovation was integrated into military capabilities, such as weapons systems, logistics, and organization. The fourth industrial revolution will be no different. In addition, the civilian sector, both in business and in academia, primarily drives technological development today. The traditional defense industrial sectors of many countries now find it difficult to match the pace of innovation in development-focused and investment-oriented businesses. Therefore, anyone who is able to develop interfaces between civilian-driven innovation and military capability development will likely enjoy a number of operational advantages in the not-too-distant future.

You Say You Want a Revolution…

In the context of military concepts and capabilities, it is easy to use the term “revolution” as a rhetorical device to argue for rapid and transformative change. However, by embracing the idea of a military revolution, there is a danger that existing capabilities might be dismantled prematurely. The obvious risk is of losing the ability to handle military problems in the here and now, while betting on capabilities that may take years to truly materialize and mature. The Swedish downsizing of both the military and civilian defense after the end of the Cold War (often referred to as the Swedish Total Defense Concept) serves as an example of this. A relatively cautiously initiated disengagement from territorial defense, which had served Sweden well during the Cold War, was followed by a series of sweeping measures in the defense bills of 1996, 2000, and 2001. The final blow was presented in the 2004 bill, which fundamentally changed the design of Swedish defense, in terms of both volume and capability. One of the factors that strongly accelerated the reorientation of the military was the “network-centric defense concept,” which is partly based on American studies and concept development, presented as the “revolution in military affairs.”

The end of the Cold War brought about a “strategic timeout,” which allegedly created good conditions for getting rid of the old and starting to experiment with the new. However, the promise of ground-breaking new capabilities never materialized, though the concept was still used to motivate a continuing downsizing. The decisions made between 1996 and 2004 in many ways constitute the backdrop of today’s challenges to the Swedish Defense Concept. From the end of the Cold War up to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Sweden and its armed forces focused on international crisis management and stability operations. Overseas engagements dominated all relevant processes within the Swedish armed forces. There was also a high level of ambition invested into the European Union’s High Readiness Concept , including the E.U. Battle Group Concept.

There were numerous warning signs stemming from activities in states neighboring Russia. The Russo-Georgian war in August 2008 was followed not only by a focused capability build-up in Russia, but also more assertive behavior in, for example, the Baltic Sea region. It was, however, not until Russia’s annexation of Crimea that Sweden and other European countries began to put security and defense at the forefront of their political agendas. The Swedish Parliament passed two defense bills in 2015 and 2020, constituting the start of a substantial buildup of military capability. In 2015, the Swedish defense budget was approximately $4 billion per year. In 2021, the budget has increased to $6 billion per year, continuing to rise to $9 billion per year in 2025.

Conscription was re-introduced in 2018, and the number of personnel will grow from some 55,000 to 90,000 in less than ten years. The K 4 regiment in Arvidsjaur will be propped up to develop and train a second Arctic Ranger Battalion. The I 21 regiment in Sollefteå will be re-established with a detachment in Östersund. In total, it will be responsible for the development and training of two new infantry battalions. Also, the I 13 regiment in Falun will be re-established and will have responsibility for the development and training of a new infantry battalion. The AMF 4 regiment will be re-established in Gothenburg and will be responsible for the development and training of a new amphibious battalion. Yet to come during 2022 is the re-establishment of the A 9 regiment in Kristinehamn, which will develop two new divisional artillery battalions.

It is a major challenge to transform a military that had been focused on overseas deployments for 20 years to a force capable of competing with a major or great power. This has implications for everything ranging from human resources to conceptual frameworks. Facing this, it is worth asking if countries like Sweden have to approach opponents symmetrically. Will small and medium states ever be able to manage a crisis or a war involving a militarily well-resourced and capable opponent if they continue to compete by applying a fully reciprocal approach to capability development? In our book, we argue that the current force always forms the baseline for defense here and now. Countries like Sweden should build and apply knowledge about new and emerging technologies within the current force. They should also identify decision points when major shifts of defense concepts might take place, as well as requirements for them.

Instead of being seduced by the concept of revolution with the hope of rapid and radical changes, there are many reasons to lean toward an evolutionary approach, albeit sometimes with slightly revolutionary elements. A state’s security situation is seldom constant, but it instead fluctuates with external developments and subsequent geopolitical and geostrategic conditions. The challenge is to develop a force that is capable of dealing with future threats without becoming unable to respond to sudden crises or conflicts in the present. For the smaller state, the costs of strategic miscalculation are usually much higher than for a bigger state. It is within this context that we look at how smaller states can balance between, on the one hand, the risks of being too conservative and resistant to new technology and change but, on the other hand, being too susceptible to hype and unproven systems. When leaning too heavily toward either of these extremes, one will likely face the risk of making a force irrelevant against an adversary on the battlefield.

A Guide for Smaller States

From the perspective of a small- or medium-sized state, several different approaches could support the application of new technologies when forming military capabilities. New technology should be adopted gradually and based on existing platforms and systems. This is a structured way to increase operational capabilities step by step and simultaneously build knowledge on how to use new technology. The achieved knowledge would then form a natural foundation for decisions on major technology shifts in support of a more comprehensive move to build and implement new capabilities. This gradual approach could also support the building of trust, not just among decision-makers but also within a country’s wider population.

The suggested approach also allows for an adapted alignment of new and emerging technologies with the necessity to develop a legal framework in accordance with a country’s strategic culture, values, and policies. This approach requires a thorough strategic baseline with clear decision points on when and how to make technology leaps, while bearing in mind the retention of a relevant military capability in order to be able to proactively deal with current security challenges. There is no such thing as a strategic timeout. The evolutionary approach should continue to be small and medium states’ preferred approach to the introduction of new and emerging technologies in their armed forces. For obvious reasons, this needs to be not only accompanied by, but also guided by, well-balanced concepts and doctrines leading to the identification of niches where new technology could rapidly make an impact. Such areas could include the introduction of AI supported by machine learning in support of military decision-making, or the use of small satellites in support of enhanced sensor coverage.

Civilian actors — such as innovation hubs, universities, and research centers, as well as enterprises in different forms — mainly drive, and will continue to drive, technological development. The pace of development cycles is already high and will rapidly become even faster. This often stands in stark contrast to the cultures of government-controlled planning and acquisition bureaucracies, which are usually quite cumbersome and do not move at the pace of strategic or operational relevance. This situation calls for new forms of cooperation and engagement among governments, enterprises, innovation hubs, and academia. Such cooperation should attempt to cater to the best conditions possible for all parts, phases, and aspects of technology development. However, this would also require governmental actors to develop clear strategies and methodological support to facilitate timely decision-making on whether to continue with different projects. The latter is of high relevance. Leaders of small states need to have the ability and courage to cancel major projects if it is clear that they will soon be obsolete.

At the Speed of Relevance

There are good reasons for small and medium-sized countries to be open to new technology. However, one should not simply try to mirror the capabilities of other countries and potential adversaries without a proper analysis of the requirements of a specific strategic context, as well as other parameters in the actual operational environment. The military capabilities involved in achieving maximum operational effect against an adversary do not necessarily fully reflect the capabilities required to protect oneself against that same adversary. Technology development as a part of military capability development needs to be based on balanced choices and calculated risk-taking. Furthermore, just because a technology exists or because a potential opponent might possess a certain capability, one does not always have to approach that technology or capability in a linear way.

Building knowledge about the impact of new and emerging technologies remains a key factor that underlines the importance of conducting research, studies, experiments, and trials in order to identify one’s own weak spots, as well as those of potential adversaries. These activities should also be conducted at a pace that reflects rapid development in areas ranging from autonomous systems to biotechnology. Profound and operationally conceptualized knowledge also increases a state’s success as a customer on both the domestic and the international defense markets. States that lack an institutionalized way of building a relevant level of knowledge and expertise on new technologies are often at risk of becoming entirely dependent on external producers. This could create strategic dependencies that might limit independent decision-making, especially in a crisis or in times of war. In the case of Sweden, the government has identified a few areas that are to be considered essential national security interests and, as such, require domestic development, design, and production. These areas are also accompanied by rather large and long-term financial commitments, which of course also carry a set of challenges that needs thorough and regular scrutiny. The obvious risk of allowing the national defense industry to develop the “fat cat syndrome” through long-term commitments from the government should be mitigated through a dialogue supported by contractual relationships with clear standards, demands, and requirements, as well as a common culture on both sides of the table.

Hard Choices

Strategic choices are, by their nature, difficult and complex, and the questions that new and emerging technologies pose to us are all individually challenging. However, the features of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, with its “system of systems” approach, will have to be mirrored in how these new technologies are merged into new or enhanced military capabilities. This also puts further emphasis on the importance of a comprehensive approach and highlights that countries need to be open-minded and not allow themselves to get boxed in by traditional thought and outdated patterns.

Innovation and technological development often lead to challenges of varying extents. Sweden, and many other small and medium-sized countries, face several strategic choices in the relatively near future, which will be based on requirements generated by and through ongoing innovation and technology development. Hence, it is also important to identify the long list of emerging opportunities that will be produced. These new technologies create possibilities to deal with both existing and future threats, perhaps also to a greater extent through asymmetry and non-linear solutions. The ability to find pragmatic trade-offs and compromises will continue to be a necessity for the successful development of smaller-state defense policy concepts. New and emerging technologies might therefore offer a new arena for small and medium states in which they can exploit possibilities to offset the capabilities of bigger and better-resourced adversaries — but only if they are brave enough to take the chance.

Lt. Gen. Michael Claesson is the chief of joint operations of the Swedish Armed Forces. He has previously served as chief of the policy and plans department in the Defense Staff, military adviser in the foreign and defense ministries, and commanding officer of the Swedish military contingent in Afghanistan. He is also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Science.

Zebulon Carlander is the program manager for Security Policy at the non-governmental organization Society Defense. He has previously co-edited a book on Swedish defense policy and also serves as an infantry squad leader in the Swedish Army Reserves.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Pfc. Sarah Pysher)

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