Disruptive technology for defence demonstration at the Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE) 17

Are Disruptive Technologies the Future of Defence?

Military Advantage and the Dilemma of Technological Innovation

What is disruptive technology? And how does it apply to the defence industry? The term disruptive technology was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen categorised new technology as being of two sorts, either sustaining or disruptive. Sustaining technology is the gradual development of existing technology. Disruptive technology does the opposite, it revolutionises the field, but comes with risks attached because it is new, untested and initially limited in scope. Hence the innovator’s dilemma.

Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell disrupted the way we communicate when he invented the telephone; and British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee disrupted it again when he invented the World Wide Web. Now the military and defence industry are facing their own disruptive technology challenges and dilemmas.

In a report for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Ben FitzGerald and Shawn Brimley defined disruptive technology in the defence sector as “a technology or a set of technologies applied to a relevant problem in a manner that radically alters the symmetry of military power between competitors” which then “immediately outdates the policies, doctrines and organization of all actors.”

US Army Already Planning the Disruptive Technology Battlefield

The US Army Research Lab (ARL) brought together a group of military strategists and researchers to try and anticipate the sorts of disruption that technological revolutions of the future will bring, with a target in mind: tactical-level land warfare in 2050. Their conclusions were that emerging and yet-to-emerge technologies would require the wholesale reinvention of current tactics and doctrine.

Diversity of Disruption

The challenges to the military coming from multiple directions: the pervasive use of robotics, advanced sensors, augmented reality, wearable tech, the Internet of Things (IOT) becoming the Internet of Battlefield Things, and the ongoing information revolution. Below are the main battlefield transformations highlighted by the ARL.

Ubiquitous Robots

With the increasing use of unmanned systems, such as unattended ground sensors, small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and fire-and-forget missiles, we are already seeing the trend in this direction and the ARL only thinks that it will become more pronounced, but with the important qualification of becoming more autonomous. Simply called robots, these autonomous entities would range in size from micro units the size of insects to self-driving vehicles capable of troop transport, but also be virtual entities operating within cyberspace. All these systems would be networked and collaborative, and integrated with human systems.

Bot Swarms and Mixed Teams

Robots will be able to act in self-organising collaborative swarms in the same way that the soldier of today acts in teams. Swarms will involve systems of varying degrees of freedom, from remote controlled to autonomous, and act dynamically according to prescribed rules of engagement. Swarms and individual robots would deploy to carry out a variety of tasks from independent offensive action to defensive shields and early warning sensing outliers. However, researchers believe that the main tactical unit of the future will be a mixed human-robot team and that this will require fundamentally changing the human soldier.

The Disruptive Tech Soldier

The battlefield of 2050 will be a lonely place. Gone are the massed armies, instead we will see fewer humans on the battlefield, but more technologically enhanced ones – “augmented humans”. The ARL sees this as extending the physical and mental abilities of the soldier, improving his understanding and interpretation of the environment, and improving communication with other super soldiers, “unenhanced humans” and robotic systems.

Augmentation could see soldiers with exoskeletons, multiple implants, even genetic engineering to create seamless access to sensing and cognitive enhancements. According to the ARL, “The presence of super humans on the battlefield in the 2050 timeframe is highly likely because the various components needed to enable this development already exist and are undergoing rapid evolution.”

Automated Decision Making

At the tactical level the 2050 battlespace will also be more qualitatively automated. Autonomous processes will make many of the decisions made by humans today. These “decision agents” would be integral to all C2, IPB, ISR and BDA processes, filtering information, fact checking and disseminating, as well as deploying sensors and dynamically evolving communication paths.

Cyber Warfare

As machines and IT systems come to dominate the battlefield of the future, so will cyber warfare adapt and develop to disrupt them. The ARL highlighted dynamic hacking and spoofing as a prominent feature of the future tactical environment due to the fact that the so-called “attack surface” of robot units will be large, offering a large target to cyber attackers. There is increasing interest in research into such attacks, including the automation of reverse engineering and vulnerability analysis. And as human soldiers become robotised, they will also become direct targets of cyber attacks.

Disruptive Technology Weapons

The defence industry’s development of disruptive technologies will not only see more robots and more enhanced human on the battlefield, but will also change the nature of the weapons used, meaning new forms of attack and defence, such as directed-energy weapons (DEWs) and force fields.

Disruption Will be the New Norm for Defence

As envisaged by the US Army, future warfighting will be dominated by information technology and as the speed of technological development accelerates it will revolutionise warfare and competitive edge will dominate the state-level arms race. As traditionally the deliverers of kinetic effects, rather than technological innovation, this increased competition will force the military into greater co-operation with commercial civilian industry to seize and maintain the tactical advantage.


Image: Royal Marine from 45 Commando controlling a Black Hornet 2 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) during AWE 17. Over 200 soldiers from 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, 51 Squadron RAF Regiment and 45 Commando tested new and innovative kit and capabilities on Salisbury Plain Training Area in Wiltshire, as they took part in the third phase of the Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE) 17. AWE 17 is at the forefront of the drive for world-class innovation at Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) in which businesses and organisations, both large and small, were invited to submit solutions to a range of ‘problems’ set by the AWE team and were able to compete on a level playing field. From the 275 initial submissions, 72 products, from a self-sterilizing water bottle and a 56 foot ‘EasiBridge’ were selected for the project.