Technology alone does not win wars – we also need leadership, courage, intellectual capacity and training.
January 12 2015: Dr Arogyaswami Paulraj is Emeritus Professor at Stanford University, the 2014 winner of the prestigious Marconi Prize and a former Commodore in the Indian Navy who led the team that developed India's first indigenous antisubmarine sonar defence system. On January 10, he delivered the Second Admiral RL Pereira Memorial Lecture organized annually by the Bangalore Chapter of the (Indian) Navy Foundation and this year jointly with Bharat Electronics Ltd.
His talk ranged widely over the need to accelerate technology change in a rapidly changing scenario of national security. In the process he discussed how robotics, AI, biotechnology, nanotechnology and energy would be the key multipliers in facing the challenge of national -- and cyber security.
We bring you extended extracts from this talk.
The factors that define the emerging security environment are well known – global warming, failed states and terrorism, narrow religious or sectarian politics, diffusion of technology, scarcity of resources, economic inequality, emergence of cyber warfare… the list goes on…
Probably the greatest threat to global security over the next few decades is global warming. If the average global temperature rises by 9 Deg F, as is now appears likely, we face dramatic upheavals - a huge rise in sea levels that will displace 100s of millions of people globally, with South Asia being particularly vulnerable. Destructive weather events, like the recent storms in Philippines will become more frequent and more severe, Global agriculture will also be disrupted. If the world acts with real determination, we may be able cut the temperature rise to 6 Deg F, but even then, the impact is still very dire. Global warming will challenge the world as nothing else has done in recorded history. No country is immune.
A more recent threat to global security is the failure of state authority and the terrorism which invariably follows. The world order from the 18th century was built on the Westphalian system of nation states organized around strong central state authority, with mutual respect for national sovereignty and guaranteed by international treaties. This seems to be weakening – states from Algeria to Libya, from Lebanon to Syria to Pakistan are in turmoil. Syria, a country that had much better socio-economic metrics than India went from a prosperous unified state to one torn apart by a civil war with tens if not hundreds of warring factions. The war has already cost Syria, a country with mere 17 M people, over 250,000 lives, 4 M refugees and many cities in total ruins. Pakistan, on our own border is also severely stressed, and some would argue, also on the road to collapse. With over 200 nuclear weapons, this is a not an insignificant threat to global security.
What underlies such violent collapses – certainly the mixing of state with religion or sectarian politics is a sure formulae for disaster. Iraq and Pakistan are prime examples. Also the widespread use of modern communications while highlighting human suffering and injustice, also makes it easy to mobilize a population and incite violence. Obscurantist fringe elements or alienated minorities place any country in great danger.
Cyber warfare is also now a real threat. Its rise in the past one year has been common news. Cyber is a powerful weapon. Whatever system that uses software to function can be compromised by another piece of software. Almost every aspect of modern society from transportation, power grids, banking systems and telecommunications networks are software based, making them all vulnerable. There is no easy defense. While hacking banking records or movie studios, as happened recently in the US, is mere vandalism or espionage, cyber weapons can also make jet liners drop from the sky or collapse the national electricity grid. The identity of the Cyber-attacker can be disguised and therefore the attack is both deniable by the perpetrator and not easily attributable by the victim. The Stuxnet virus, reportedly developed by the US and Israel to attack Iran’s centrifuges is a harbinger of sophisticated cyber weapon – hard to detect, hard to prevent, hard to attribute and easy to deny. The Stuxnet used only 3 zero day vulnerabilities, so a relatively simple virus. Far more complex cyber-attacks are clearly in the making.
The next few decades will be an era of frequent conflict; involving state, non‐state, and even individual actors who are increasingly willing to use violence to achieve their political and ideological ends. The result can be friction across the globe, but particularity in the equatorial belt cutting across Latin America, Africa and South Asia. Conflicts could arise unpredictably, last from months to years, and be riven by surprises and ambiguities. Future threats can defy simple categorizations – conventional vs unconventional, symmetric vs asymmetric, open set piece battles vs urban warfare. We will also see blurring of lines in the role of the military between conventional war fighting and political functions like nation building and peace keeping.. Also increasingly new technologies are dual use and what is military vs what is civilian can be hard to separate. The diffusion of civilian technologies around the globe, will empower irregular forces and sometimes even giving them an edge over regular armies. Also, the use of irregular forces as proxies by some nation states, may rise. In short a much more complicated global security environment. India by any measure is among the very vulnerable form a geo-political and technological position.
Biotech is now transforming medicine, agriculture, energy and materials. Human genome sequencing, which took over $ 100 Million in 1995 is now less than$ 1000: a price reduction of 100,000. Synthetic biology where we can build DNA piece by piece to create new life forms is also advancing. High end Biotech wet labs which cost $ 10-20 Million, 5 years ago, can be put together today for $100,000. With all this, we appear finally to be at the threshold of breakthroughs in treating cancer and genetic diseases like diabetes.
Robotics is another technology that is rapidly advancing. Robotics is transforming manufacturing - lowering costs but also displacing human labor in many other sectors. Drones and robots will transform agriculture, emergency response, transportation and surveillance. There are now over 2,000 commercial drone companies, many of these in China.
The ongoing progress in Information & communication technology ICT is more familiar. From the smart phone and the internet, ICT has transformed our lives and will continue to advance rapidly. The new dimension for ICT is data science, where the computers shift through vast amounts of data to gain insights. We are all willing victims of a data science technology, where marketers model our behavior and preferences to target advertisements. It is of course powerful tool for military intelligence, and is now widely deployed to track terrorists or to uncover information of military value from both adversaries and friends. Massive compute server farms covering 100s of acres seem to be coming up all around the globe.
Artificial Intelligence is also finally becoming a real technology. 30 years ago, AI was merely a promise. Today it has arrived. Compared to 1985, I do not see big advances in core concepts, what has changed is the cost of computing and storage that has dropped by a billion times. AI is taking over many tasks that humans do today and often do it even better. For the military, AI has entered autonomous land, sea, underwater and airborne vehicles. Removing human soldiers from these platforms is dramatically reducing costs and adding new capability as there are no habitability constraints. If precision strike was the game changer in past 20 years, unmanned autonomous platforms will alter the military landscape over the next 20 years
Nano technology - refers to nano scale devices. We can today cram billions of gates into chips that run our phones or laptops. Moore’s law scaling has cut the cost per gate of these chips by tens of billions of times over the past 50 years. A new frontier called carbon nanotechnology promises even dramatic advances, but is not yet in production.
A more intriguing technology is quantum commuting, which use the quantum superposition and entanglement to build compute engines. Some claims for early prototypes have been made, but their true performance remains secretive. When quantum computing becomes real, and it may already be, it will upend information technology as we know it and give countries with this technology a overwhelming advantage over the entire gamut of information sciences.
Finally Energy – is at the core of our economy and more than anything else makes modern society possible. Energy technology is also now an area of rapid progress from alternate energy sources, energy efficiency, denser storage and propulsion. It is also now rapidly entering military platforms, increasing the platform reach, improving sustainability and reducing refueling or battery charging cycles. Directed energy weapons are now in fleet service. The US Navy laser system uses a mere 59c of energy to replace a missile costing $200,000.
Biotech, Robotics, Information, Nano and energy – are all intertwined and reinforce each other, accelerating their advance. While these developments are driven by civilian markets and can vastly improving quality of life, they can also advance military capability.
An obvious concern is that these new technologies can also be repurposed by terrorists for their use. We all know about Ebola. Today a terror outfit with a small wet biolab costing no more than 100K can potentially make up a virus as lethal as Ebola but with transmission capability that resembles flu or measles. Likewise civilian drones can be repurposed to deliver explosives with accuracy and standoff ranges that any military will envy. The use of information technology by terror groups is well known, but the newer data science and AI will also enter their tool kit.
Let us now examine the relationship between civil and military tech. If we go back 50 years to 1965, when I was commissioned into the navy, my prize possession was a 5 valve 3 band radio made by a small company in Coimbatore called UMS. On the other hand INS Betwa (the old Betwa), with which I was familiar, had a British made fire control systems (called FPS 5). This was a large analog computer that filled an entire compartment. FPS 5 took data from the tracking radar and solved the mathematical equations for the so-called fire control problem to control the anti-aircraft guns. In 1965, there was no comparison between my simple UMS radio and the Betwa’s fire control system. Military tech was miles ahead of civilian tech. If we come forward 50 years to today, the situation is completely reversed. The iphone in your pocket has far more computing and communication capability than any ship board systems. Indeed, a single iphone today is many times more powerful than all the computers in the space and ground segments that NASA in 1969 used to land a Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon and bring them back safely to the earth. Likewise across in all the newly emerging technologies, the gap between civil and military, will grow even further, this creates many challenges for the military.
The rapid progress of civilian sector comes from two reasons – first the civil industry outspends the military R&D by huge margin, in communications and networking, for example, this margin is probably more than 50 times. The civil industry can afford it because of nearly half a trillion $ revenue generated from the global markets; The second reason is that given the highly competitive nature of the business, civilian companies need to invest heavily in R&D, where you either “innovate or perish”. For example, in the wireless semiconductor industry, where I work, it now takes $ 10 Billion or Rs 60,000 crores of investment to build the communications chip for the mobile phone. Intel alone is now spending about Rs 25,000 crores annually to try break into this market, currently controlled by Qualcomm, a US company at the higher end of the market and by Mediatek, a Chinese company, at the lower end of the market. Rs 60,000 crores for a piece of silicon not more than 8 mm x 8 mm seems to bit much. But things are only getting even more expensive.
If we look back at the past 2 centuries, the pace of evolution of military technology has steadily quickened. A defending army faced muskets and bayonets in 19th century, machine guns and breach loaders in World War 1, mechanized armor in World War 2. The 60s and 70s saw vastly better sensor and communications technology, 80s laser designation for weapon delivery, the 90s ushered in all weather and standoff precision munitions with GPS targeting, We are now moving to an era of autonomous munitions that use artificial intelligence to operate in communications and GPS denied environments.
Each generation of military technology is more complex and shorter than the previous generation. As a result, the traditional layers of development, evaluation and deployment are now getting telescoped and boundaries increasingly blurred between development and operational use, between the scientist and the soldier.
The military technology of a country is underpinned by the strength of its civilian high technology. Without a civilian industry base, the military strength will not be sustainable in a significant conflict. One old example comes from world war 2 when a new factory was set up in a place called Willow Run in Michigan US to manufacture B 24 “liberator” bombers. Liberators were big aircraft with an all up weight of 60,000 lbs and a pay load of 8000 lbs. In less than one year from ground breaking on open farmland, 364 days to be precise, the Willow Run factory was rolling out one B-24 every 59 minutes. On an opposing note, transfer of technology, licensed production or now more fashionably joint ventures rarely give a country true strength and often becomes an addictive habit. No donor country will transfer their best technology. Therefore joint ventures or wholescale defense imports do not make for a sustainable defense.
Role of the Soldier
Democracies firmly enshrine civilian (by which I mean political) control over the military in the use of military power, size of the army and the allocation of budget. The army is also expected to be apolitical. Whether it be the US or China or India, civilian control is very well established, though not without some stresses.
The civil-military relationship is nicely captured by Samuel Huntington’s “two hands on the sword” metaphor – the sword is in the scabbard and has two hands on it. The inner hand is the soldiers’ hand and the outer hand is that of the civilian authority i.e. the political level elected by the people. The civilian hand decides when the sword can be drawn and to whom it should be pointed. Once drawn, the military hand wields the sword in battle and has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the sword does it job. Only the soldier, who fights the fight, is best positioned to oversee the definition, acquisition and sharpening of the sword. In e other words – soldier has the primacy for the sword. In the event of war, when the military is victorious, the nation’s gratitude goes to the soldier. No missile engineer or sonar scientist can claim victory. Likewise if the soldier fails, the country will hold him responsible, and soldier can certainly not pass the blame on to some hapless bureaucrat or a munitions manufacturer.
In the US, this primacy is manifested by military leadership of various entities that make the sword. Their military largely contracts out functions from research, to development, to manufacturing and logistics to service providers through competitive bidding process. In some cases, like highly classified research and weapons evaluation, it runs its own organizations. Many of these are manned heavily by civilians, but are invariably headed by a soldier. Certainly by soldiers who have the knowledge and skill sets to lead effectively. These soldiers are regular line officers and are rotated into operational billets. The head of ONR for example, is a flag officer, but ONR itself is manned largely by scientists. Lower rank officers like Commanders or Colonels participate in program management or work at DARPA or think tanks. One example of program management function is Col Brad Parkinson, a fighter pilot in the US air force and a PhD in mathematics. In the 1960s, he led the joint US Navy and Air Force project to develop, the now ubiquitous, GPS system. GPS was later opened for public use and is now in every phone, drone, tractor and car. I know Brad Parkinson, as he is a Professor and colleague at Stanford. He is one of the many examples of US military’s participation in building the sword. The US military also has large “think tanks” like Rand or Mitre Corp. that employ civilian experts to support the military from strategy, to technology scanning, weapons evaluation and even organizational reform.
The support to the military by civilian service providers – be they analysts or scientists or bureaucrats is best articulated by Dr. Ashton Carter, currently a professor at Stanford Univ. and now President Obama’s nominee for the next US Secretary of Defense. Dr Carter, with a PhD, in theoretical physics and a graduate studies medieval archeology, gives him a great foundation for his new job. He also served earlier as Under Sec for Def Acquistion some years ago. Dr Carter speaking of his role then, said that it is the soldier who fights the fight and his job was to listen carefully and make sure that every dollar and every person in his organization was aligned behind the soldier.
In China, the soldier’s primacy over the sword has meant the Peoples Liberation Army has itself become the “service provider”. The PLA runs over a dozen universities, somewhat equivalent to our IITs, PLA also runs R&D organizations like COSTIND, and controls many commercial companies from telecom giants like ZTE and Xinhua to humble pig farms. The military and civil worlds are overlapped and the lines between them seem often blurred. One example is that the Dean of First State Key Lab for Wireless, one of China’s two top wireless labs, where I work occasionally, is a general officer from the PLA.
What about India? One particularly perceptive study is by Princeton University professor, Linda Colley. She makes the point that in India, unlike China or the US, the military – civilian (i.e. political) interface was historically different. When China and US emerged, their armies (or really militias) led their fight for independence. Mao Tse Dung in China and George Washington in US were military leaders whose armies defeated the colonizers, and who after independence, became the country’s political leaders. This led to close connections between military and political leadership in both countries. In India, the military, before independence, owed allegiance to the British crown the colonizing power, and remained in the barracks during the Indian independence movement. Independence was won by a non-violent movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and his followers. There was little or no contact between the army and the freedom movement. Indeed any such thing would have been viewed as seditious. After independence the Royal Indian Army became the Indian Army and reported to the new civilian leadership under Prime Minister Nehru. Moreover, some of the senior military positions in independent India continued to be led by British officers. So, understandably, military – political relationship was not as close in the early years and led to the rise of strong organizational and bureaucratic barriers and layers between the military and the political level, the ultimate source of power in a democracy. One may wonder if this is the perhaps the reason why India is now the largest importer of defense technology in the world.
Now, nearly, seventy years after independence it is probably time to fundamentally review how the military can be better empowered to define, build and wield the sword. This, of course comes with unfamiliar responsibilities for the military who will need to build a deeper understanding of science and technology. But I believe this will be worth the while both for the country and personally for the soldier
Given future conflicts will be more complex and technology far more advanced. I believe this calls for a deeper and broader education of the soldier. Certainly all soldier needs a significant understanding of S&T, obviously. I emphasize, All soldiers, because if the soldier who wields the sword, delegates S&T to different or lower tier of soldiers, something vital will be lost, and the soldier will get a sword built for the wrong battle or for the wrong era.I also believe that all general officers should have broader education beyond S&T to include humanities which illuminates how societies and countries function. Ideally all general officers should have a master’s degree and I would also argue that some of the officer education should be at the top global universities. If a country wants the world best weapons, why not also study at the world’s best universities. Military training schools or colleges, play some role in developing strategic depth, but the military needs wider intellectual inputs. Here university think tanks funded by the military funding can be useful. Stanford University has such a center. Many former (and now future) US Defense secretaries, are professors in the center. And many Stanford faculty, including me, are also called upon to study a variety of defense issues from officer management to technology priorities to acquisition reform.
Also beyond academic education, best way to build real insights is to be immersed in a skilled working environment – be they think tanks, research labs, or high tech companies. So officers tagged to rise to general rank can profit from such exposure as a part of their preparation. It will, transform the officer corp. But this does require that such “extra-regimental: experience is valued, and the career factor of these future general officers protected.
Building new class of weapons is extremely difficult, there are huge technological, cultural and organizational barriers. Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done. If a military gets really lucky and finds visionary technical talent within its ranks, that is a irreplaceable resource, because it comes with many advantages including the all-important trust factor. The US military has embraced such talent and built entire organizations around them. The US Navy’s nuclear submarine programme, or the US Air Force’s stealth aircraft program were all led by talented soldiers. To empower them, every rule was broken, but the results are self-evident.
Our earlier report on Paulraj:
India-born Stanford University guru Arogyaswami Paulraj wins 2014 Marconi Prize