“There is a natural opposition among men to anything they have not thought of themselves”.
Sir Barnes Wallis
Alphen, Netherlands. 6 September. Last Thursday in Rotterdam I had the very distinct honour for an Englishman of chairing the annual Johan de Witt conference on future war in the maritime amphibious domain. Apparently Johan de Witt was some Dutch bloke who was instrumental in the 1667 ‘nicking’ of the Royal Navy’s flagship, the “Royal Charles”, from Chatham Naval Yard. Although I have long ascribed the aforesaid Dutch ‘borrowing’ of the fleet flagship to a dose of chain rust, it was de Witt who made the Medway Raid possible through reform of the Royal Netherlands Navy…and innovation.
To start the conference I had prepared a scenario script, which was brilliantly put together into a film by my friends at Scenarios4Summits in The Hague, with me doing the voice-over in a manner which, to my mind, combined the very best of Burton and Olivier. The film portrayed the 2025 start of a new European War in which an under-funded and under-equipped NATO force, commanded by the British heavy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, was destroyed by a Russian force which forged submarines, robotics, and advanced artificial intelligence (AI) into a deadly trinity.
My scenario was inspired by the famous 1955 film, “The Dambusters”. The film portrays real-life and brilliant innovation by engineering genius Sir Barnes Wallis, and brilliant military execution by RAF 617 (Dambusters) Squadron, to destroy two of Germany’s main dams in May 1943. To succeed six separate developments had to come together; a new strategy (attacks of infrastructure vital to German industrial infrastructure), a new technological idea (Barnes Wallis’s vision of a bouncing bomb), a new bomb (the Upkeep mine), a new way of casting steel, a new explosive (RDX), and a new aircraft (the Avro Lancaster bomber).
Today? Much is being made of the possible civilian applications of AI for the common good. However, like all technologies, it will also have military applications, and military applications by less than wholesome regimes. NATO and its nations cannot afford to be squeamish about this coming reality.
There are two types of innovation; applied thinking that leads to new technologies and applications, new thinking that corrals existing thinking and technologies into new capabilities. A 2007 paper by John McCarthy of Stanford University put AI and the coming strategic reality into context when he wrote that, “Intelligence is the computational part of the ability to achieve goals in the world”. AI is “….the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but AI does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable”. It does not. A lot has happened over the decade since McCarthy wrote that paper. Crucially, the pace of development is accelerating to the extent that my fearsome vision for 2025 is entirely plausible.
The problem for the Allies is that, in spite of the sterling efforts of Allied Command Transformation (ACT), the words ‘NATO’ and ‘innovation’ are not ones that sit together comfortably, either in a blog sentence or in reality. The challenge AI and associated technologies and strategies (technology is now driving a lot of strategy) poses to NATO is daunting. Use of it, and defence against it will require deep innovation.
A close US friend of mine last week put the scope of the challenge in its strategic context. He said that the Alliance suffers from a mismatch between the nature of conflict and war (the human component) and the character of conflict and war (technological advances in the waging of war). In history it is the side that creates an equilibrium between the two prevails in conflict and war. Too many of the Allies simply do not want to even consider the very real possibility of future war, and in so not-doing make such war more, not less likely.
NATO needs access to a kind of defence Silicon Valley (Silicon Trench?). Specifically, the Alliance should create a new NATO Defence Campus that brings together strategic thinkers, technology thinkers and defence innovators to consider the shape of legitimate deterrence and defence in the twenty-first century, how best to maintain comparative advantage in twenty-first century warfare, and the impact of such technologies on future war. The ‘Campus’, would operate in much the same ways as similar Google and Microsoft institutions. It could also form part of the evolving NATO-EU Strategic Partnership. It could also be called the NATO Sir Barnes Wallis Campus, and, naturally, I would be the first Rector!
If the Alliance does not act then NATO faces a ‘Dreadnought’ moment, or worse, a new Pearl Harbor. In December 1941 Japanese aircraft sank much of the US Pacific Fleet at anchor by applying a series of deadly innovations they had copied from the successful November 1940 attack by carrier-based (HMS Illustrious) Royal Navy Swordfish, under the command of Lt. Cdr M.W. Williamson RN, on the Italian fleet at Taranto.
It is time NATO woke up properly to future war! Even showing the Alliance is thinking in such terms would be an act of deterrence. Why? Beijing, Moscow, and indeed others, are not only thinking about how best to exploit the West’s many defence vulnerabilities, they are actively seeking to engage in a war at our many seams across the hybrid, cyber, hyper war spectrum. They are also pouring a lot of money and research into realising such a capability.
The Rambusters? My name for a new NATO force designed specifically to disrupt the AI capabilities of adversaries before they are used to devastating effect against the peoples and forces of the Alliance.
As for Johan de Witt we English had our revenge. In 1688 we invited the Dutch William of Orange to become King William III of England. It is a fate we English only impose on our worst enemies.