The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank
Military technology is evolving — and as countries such as China advance in areas like artificial intelligence and hypersonics, Nato members are playing catch-up. In the past, governments would have turned to defense manufacturers to find the most cutting-edge kit, but today tech innovation is more often found in the start-up community.
The tech world’s most brilliant minds, meanwhile, tend to have minimal national security expertise. Those who are not steeped in this world won’t innovate well for it. If we are to square this circle, western governments must start offering national security training for the tech sector.
Beijing isn’t shy about its intentions: through its ambitious Military-Civil Fusion program — which focuses on pioneering technology — it intends to turn its armed forces into a world class military. In the west, too, interest in new military technology is growing. Between 2019 and 2021, venture capital investment in US defense tech grew by 280 percent, compared with 240 percent in tech overall. NATO and the EU fund defense technology, too. But western governments are struggling to engage a tech community that has traditionally been wary of involvement in this area. In 2018, Google engineers refused to work on an AI project for the Pentagon because they believed it was linked to lethal activity. Tech minds can build extraordinary products for needs they are aware of — ride-shares, say.
General Sir Gordon Messenger, a former UK deputy defense chief, bemoans the fact that defense is “not in any way maximizing” technology which could be adapted for military purposes. “There’s a lot of dual-use technology that doesn’t realize its value,” he tells me. “Mostly it’s because the military is quite an opaque customer which is difficult to understand. And start-ups don’t have the bandwidth to break down doors in ministries of defense.”
This is a major failing: if the tech community had a sophisticated understanding of the threats western countries face, and the role of the armed forces, they’d come up with ideas no government official would have thought of. “Tech entrepreneurs go where there are good returns, whether it be pizza delivery apps or social media networks,” says Giedrimas Jeglinskas, a Lithuanian former banker and army officer who now serves as a Nato assistant secretary-general. “The more they understand about national security, the more they’ll innovate in it,” he tells me. “And most of national security tech innovation has nothing to do with guns.”
Israel, whose vibrant tech sector caters to the country’s national security needs, has long been the envy of its US and European allies. Its success is built on compulsory military service, with the best scientific and technological minds selected for defense research and development units. The efforts of Nato members seem piecemeal in comparison. The US Defense Innovation Unit has field offices in Silicon Valley, Austin and Boston. The UK military’s jHub acts as the link between the armed forces and the tech community. But this is no match for China, which is preparing to be the first country to transition fully to warfare powered by artificial intelligence.
Western militaries could start by sending liaison officers to tech companies. An even easier solution would be to offer tech experts national security education. This could take place at national defense universities such as the UK’s planned College for National Security and have a curriculum similar to that of Finland’s national defense course, which teaches future leaders from all sectors about threats facing the country.
Of course, tech entrepreneurs would not be mere students: they have expertise in a world that most government officials struggle to keep up with. If students were able to share their knowledge of areas such as quantum and blockchain, then national security training for the tech community would be a win-win.