MOD cyber graphic (Crown Copyright, 2013)

Information Advantage in the Multi-Domain Battlespace

Chief of Defence Intelligence Outlines Challenges of a “World Strategically More Dangerous”

The Chief of Defence Intelligence, Air Marshal Phil Osborn, has admitted that the current world threat situation was not foreseen by the intelligence community. He also highlighted the coming challenges from disruptive technology, such as AI and cyber.

Talking to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London on Friday, May 18, Air Marshal Osborn outlined a changing and more challenging battlespace that was evolving at an unprecedented pace.

His examples brought the point home forcefully. Crimea, Ukraine, interference in democratic election processes, proxy war in the Middle East, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal were all unimaginable before they happened.

‘Intelligence and Information Advantage in a Contested World’

Under the heading of ‘Intelligence and Information Advantage in a Contested World,’ the Air Marshal talked about a “multi-layered and multi-speed strategic battlespace” where collaboration, confrontation and conflict preparation could occur in the same state relationships.

It is also a “full spectrum” battlespace involving physical and cyber, legal and illegal capabilities, moving at different tactical and strategic speeds.

“Great power competition has returned,” he said, although noting that direct confrontation occurs through proxies. However, one should acknowledge that the proxies themselves are not mere puppets and act to their own agendas that may only temporarily be aligned with those of their ‘allies’.

In some cases, near-peer competitors already overmatch the West, or will do so soon, he warned. Other, less developed states were nonetheless also developing advanced nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. He drew particular attention to ballistic missile proliferation in the Middle East. These developing threats challenged both national infrastructure and expeditionary basing and re-supply.

The proliferation and use of chemical weapons – “a worrying trend” – was another key aspect of this changing threat environment. However, fewer chemical weapons have been used in the first quarter of the twenty-first century than were used in the first quarter of the twentieth.

Amidst the proliferation and use of existing technology, Osborn also recognised the coming dangers of disruptive technology, particularly artificial intelligence, comparing the impact of AI on modern warfare as being like that of air power during the last century.

Air Marshal Osborn described a “complex web” of military operations where traditional separations between land, air and sea were submerging under the demand for joint capability. Military forces were now routinely deployed hundreds and thousands of kilometres overseas.

Developing Joint Force Under the Fusion Doctrine

While conventional warfare might be becoming a joint concept under the new Fusion Doctrine (March NSCR report), it still requires lengthy preparation and training, with lengthy deployment and engagement. This cycle is obsolete in the domain of cyberspace where a cyber attack could potentially have a devastating impact within hours or minutes.

Talking of cyber led the Air Marshal to next consider information operations. Again he saw “significant growth” in this area, with the operations themselves transcending geography and being difficult to attribute.

Not naming any names, he said “For some, this ability to wage hidden and difficult to attribute warfare, in cyberspace and elsewhere, brings the opportunity to be much more aggressive and to take risk.”

He argued that “publicly available information” was now “an oeprational domain,” emphasising that “the fight for the narrative is arguably as important as the actual fight.”

Critically, what the shift to unconventional and hybrid warfare means is that “the consequent risk of confrontation and miscalculation is rising.”

Modernising Defence

To remain able to defend the country, British defence must change to meet these challenges, he argued. Within the context of ‘Modernising Defence,’ he urged a more strategic approach and one that could meet the increasing pace of military operations.

But what is a more strategic approach? For the Air Marshal it meant “that we understand more comprehensively and then decide quicker than the opposition” and proactively compete rather than merely observe.

More Than “More of the Same”?

He argued that “‘more of the same’ just won’t cut it,” but is this ‘faster, better’ approach any different from current strategy?

Osborn fixed his priorities as “strategic agility and adaptability; interoperability rather than just interconnectivity; and Information Advantage from a resilient, integrated Defence Operational Platform.”

Again he stressed the “to understand first, to decide first, and then if necessary to act first” approach, but would Britain, or any of the European powers, really act first?

The key problem with this analysis is that there can be no real and effective strategy without strategic vision. Britain simply seeks to defend, therefore, she is automatically on the back foot. Aggressors such as Russia, China and the Islamic State, all have strategic vision: world domination under a single ideology (or perhaps simply a single ‘ideologue’ in the case of Russia). This will always give them the advantage.

Osborn saw the need to have a “convincing justification and narrative for our actions,” which was “guided by a clear and transparent sense of legality and proportionality.” Critically, the West’s opponents have a narrative of conviction and are not restrained by legality or proportionality.

The loss of a convincing strategic narrative for the UK is underscored by figures released by the MOD showing plummeting morale across all Services of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. And the effect of “legality and proportionality” can be seen in the widely-criticised rules of engagement during Operation HERRICK in Afghanistan.

The Air Marshal brings much military experience to his analysis. Since joining the RAF over 35 years ago, Osborn has seen frontline service as a Tornado navigator before rising through the ranks to become Chief of Defence Intelligence in 2015. His career has taken him from Tornado Squadron and Station Commander to Commander British Forces Op RESINATE (North) in Iraq. He served as Chief of Staff Operations and Support at Air Command and Air Officer Commanding No. 2 Group before becoming the first Director of Capability in Joint Forces Command.

Now, as Chief of Defence Intelligence, he works with others in the intelligence community, such as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, to defend British interests at home and abroad.

He left his audience with the warning that if Britain should fall behind either her main allies or most likely future enemies, then she would “fall behind exponentially and likely irrevocably.”