Asymmetric Dialogue

Battlefield decisions: How emerging technology will shape new military threats

Summary As Australia expands its military, new technologies are already challenging the traditional superiority of conventional platforms.
When United States Defence Secretary General James Mattis released the National Defense Strategy Commission's assessment of the Pentagon's defence strategy, it contained a warning that the global security environment was at its most dangerous "in decades" and America's military superiority had "eroded to a dangerous degree".






Head of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University, Professor Ben Schreer acknowledges beyond our region there is a lot of instability around the globe at present.

With the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen attests, he worries a major war between these protagonists could take place within the next 10 years and it would also potentially draw in Israel.


Unfortunately, on the technological front Schreer worries it could also "include a nuclear dimension down the road".


Bearing this in mind, the US should really ask whether it "would be a good idea to indulge the Saudis with nuclear technology in the coming years".

When it comes to newer technologies, Schreer says the most advanced countries will be the ones who can afford and will benefit most so they will continue to have first mover advantage.

"The less technically advanced countries will continue with asymmetrical technologies such as improvised explosive devices and the Western powers will be less inclined to engage in these sorts of conflicts," he says.

Schreer says while the introduction of new technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are real game changers, he does not really see it supplanting humans. Again, he sees the first mover advantage as playing a significant role as you will not really be able to buy AI off the shelf.


Moreover, notwithstanding the current government's commitment to increase defence spending to a constant 2 per cent of GDP, the big question is how will Australia pay for all this?

"The more specialised the automated systems, the more expensive it is to get people. The need will be for a highly specialised force to operate all the systems."

As for whether robotics and AI would take over, he cannot see why a government would outsource highly consequential battlefield decisions to machines.

"It will be interesting to see how technology reshapes the military but we must remember the military is very conservative and resistant to technology that makes them obsolete."


At present though, Australia's small defence force relies on technology for its regional combat and deterrent edge.

Australia's carefully tended alliances with the US and the UK in particular mean the ADF has privileged access to those countries' armouries as well as to vital intelligence available only to the "Five Eyes" partners: the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

"For example, we're the only country in the world (outside the US) that has the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, so there's a special relationship there," says Dr Marcus Hellyer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

He agrees the Australian inventory is unparalleled in our region and to maintain that edge Australia's programs to acquire new 12 new submarines, nine frigates, 12 patrol boats and some 600 armoured vehicles are among the biggest of their kind in the world.


Yet the challenge for Australia is the new technologies are already challenging the traditional superiority of conventional defence assets and the West does not necessarily have a lead in developing and exploiting them.

Analysts might predict which of two opposing forces will win an old-fashioned conventional war, Hellyer says, but "once you start injecting new things like cyber or stealth or artificial intelligence, or things like that, it's much harder to understand the calculus there, and the outcomes. So, it increases the uncertainty."

The first corollary to this is that advantage accrues to the defence force that adopts capabilities based on these new technologies fastest. So, procurement agencies are re-examining their acquisition processes to exploit the fruits of industrial research and innovation more quickly.

The second corollary is that traditional, "high-tech inhabited platforms such as ships and combat aircraft, while not obsolete, are increasingly vulnerable to a range of new threats," Hellyer says. Hence Australia's keen interest in anything that reduces threats or provides an asymmetric advantage: quantum computing, for example, or electronic warfare, directed energy weapons or hypersonic missiles. These are some of Australia's technology research priorities under the new Next Generation Technologies Fund (NGTF).

For Schreer it will be interesting to see how these technologies reshape our future fighting force but he believes at the end of the day, the world's militaries will ensure "the human element stays in the driver's seat".