Fear God and Dread Nought: Europe, 8G military technology and the new arms race

Republished piece by
Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French from his Blog Blast Series

“Moderation in war is imbecility”.
Admiral Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord
Vostok 18 and the revolution in military technology

Alphen, Netherlands. 5 September. Europeans are about to face a ‘Dreadnought’ moment. It is both a threat and an opportunity.

Over dinner the other night my great friend Dr Andrew Michta, Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center, enjoyed an admittedly alcohol-fuelled discussion about the future of force. The world in 2018, we agreed, stands on the verge of a revolution in military technology and because of that, like it or not, a new global arms race beckons. Specifically, that for all the hype about ‘6G’ military technology the world’s serious armed forces are still only groping towards the future of warfare: wholly unmanned, artificially-intelligent (AI), autonomous/independent robotic combat systems (8G?) that is coming via a form of hybrid part-manned, part-machine military concept. The reason for the uncertainty is that they are all trying to fit ultra-digital technology into effectively analogue military-strategic concepts and command structures. They also fail to grasp the extent to which ‘8G’ warfare will see technology drive strategy precisely because offensive weapons, defensive systems and command response is about to become so fast it will be beyond the ken of human beings.

To underline the point Russia’s mighty Vostok 18 joint exercise with China will kick off on 11 September (nice that, eh?) and run to at least 20 September. Vostok 18, the largest Russian military exercise since 1981, will see 300,000 troops, 1000 aircraft and over 36,000 military ‘assets’ deployed in a show of Russo-Chinese military might.  It threatens to be transformative and leave Europeans not only further behind in the new Great Game that is unfolding, but dangerously vulnerable. Europe’s leaders you see, simply don’t get this power thing.

The Mighty Dreadnought

There was a time they did. Let me take you back to HM Dockyard, Portsmouth on 10 February, 1906. With Union flags flying the brand new HMS Dreadnought was launched. The first all-big gun, fully-armoured, high-speed, turbine-driven battleship she not only gave a name to an entire class of mighty warships she made everything that had sailed before her immediately obsolete. She also triggered an arms race with Imperial Wilhelmine Germany which would only really end with the Royal Navy’s strategic victory at the 1916 Battle of Jutland.

Here’s the thing.  You see HMS Dreadnought was not simply a step forward in military technology. The step change advance she represented drove strategy and thus changed the very character of naval warfare.  Critically, at a stroke she increased the distance between ship and enemy that has continued unabated to this day. Through her gun director system she also introduced a degree of automation hitherto unknown.  She also revealed a profound dilemma that also exists today: as the range of gunfire increased signalling failed to keep pace and, consequently, decision-making fell far behind technology. It was a failing that almost proved disastrous at Jutland.

Imagine a new HMS Dreadnought. A fully autonomous, artificially intelligent, machine-learning, robotic military platform that arms and defends itself independently of any direct human command. Capable of launching intelligent swarms of robotic drones each armed with the ‘intelligence’ to independently seek out enemy vulnerabilities across systems, platforms, communications and command chains.  The pioneering work led by General John R. Allen and Amir Husain at Spark Cognitionare part of America’s search for their new ‘Dreadnought’. Europe?

Vostok 18

Which brings me back to Vostok 18. There are two specific aspects of Vostok 18 that should worry any European leader worthy of the name. First, the Vostok series of exercises were originally designed by Russia to test big war AGAINST China.  Now Vostok 18 has been adapted to test the idea of large, mass-mobile Russian forces going to big war WITH China.  At the very least Vostok 18 is a sign of the hardening of geopolitical blocs as the two great illiberal powers seek common cause against America and the democratic, global West.  There can be no other explanation for the military coupling of these two powers in such a way and at such a time.

Second, the Russians and Chinese are paying particular attention to a new form of extended-reach all-arms warfare built on effective coordination between disparate but powerful forces over great distance, able to operate autonomously or in concert as part of an ‘organically’ intelligent force. To illustrate the point Vostok 18 will see large-scale deployments of mainly Russian forces in Russia’s Southern and Central Military Districts (Oblast) whilst in the eastern Mediterranean the Russian Navy conducts a large-scale exercise, possibly as a prelude to a large-scale assault on the hold-out Syrian city of Idlib.

Specifically, Vostok 18 will test reconnaissance-strike contouring, large-scale combat arms, training between different types of companies, communications between disparate forces and new technologies (e.g. SPECTRUM, a new Russian electronics warfare capability was declared operational this week), drone and counter-drone missions, integration of large ground formations and air power with conventional and nuclear systems – in other words ‘deep jointness’.  The Chinese contribution will be relatively modest – believed to be no more than 3200 troops from the People’s Liberation Army, some 30 aircraft and an indeterminate number of main battle tanks. Still, as someone, somewhere else once said, “This is just the beginning. They won’t stop now”.

The new arms race and burden-sharing the future

Are the Russians and Chinese preparing for a major war?  Not directly. What they are preparing for is a major arms race with America. The design and shape of Vostok 18 suggest the Russians and Chinese are seeking to create a transformative framework for future military action that unless countered could give them a decisive advantage at a time and place of their choosing.  Clearly, both Moscow and Beijing understand the first principle of war that Europeans invented but have now wholly abandoned: success in high-end warfare depends on the successful interaction of, and balance between, five concepts – a strategic concept, a force concept, a technology concept, and intelligence and information concept with the whole ghastly edifice held together with a robust and effective decision-making and communications structure.  Of all the Western powers only the Americans are systematically thinking about future war in this way and doing something about it. Europeans?  As ever we are talking a lot but doing little or next to nothing.

Here’s the cruncher. It may be that the Americans will be able to maintain the edge in the new future war arms race of which Vostok 18 is a part, but it cannot be guaranteed. They would be helped immeasurably if their European allies started to get serious about this stuff, if for no other reason than ensuring the defence of Europeans.  To simply suggest that because arms races are nasty dangerous things, which is the real European position, Europe is not going to engage in one is even more dangerous.  You see, there may come a point when the relationship between the military strength of the revived illiberal Great Powers is so preponderant when compared to the self-chosen weakness of Europe’s decidedly less-than-great ‘powers’ that war and defeat become again real possibilities. Burden-sharing?

A European Dreadnought?

The paradox of Vostok 18 is that it also affords Europeans an opportunity to turn their dilatory defence effort to advantage.  Look at the ‘assets’ taking part in Vostok 18. The bulk of them are 4G and 5G systems. In other words, now would be the moment for Europeans collectively to begin thinking of 6G, 7G even 8G military systems. You see HMS Dreadnought may have been met with a lot of patriotic British flag-waving but in fact, she also marked a moment of maximum vulnerability for the Royal Navy, precisely because she made every other ‘RN’ ship obsolete.  Had German industry of the time been committed to out-building the British there was a chance Berlin could have eclipsed four hundred years of British sea power.

Worse, if HMS Dreadnought had instead been the SMS Kleinangst (joke) the technological edge Britain enjoyed at sea would have been lost and with it the British Empire. Over time that happened anyway but not before Wilhelmine Germany had been defeated, a victory that owed a very great deal to the blockade Royal Navy dreadnoughts and super-dreadnoughts imposed on Germany between 1914 and 1918. Thankfully, from London’s viewpoint, the British understood that the Prussian aristocrats who controlled the Kaiser’s army would never have permitted Germany to turn its full industrial might to the production of naval armaments. If they did there is a slim chance the new HMS Dreadnought could even be European.

Of course, it would be much better for all if Russia and China could be persuaded not to embark on an expensive arms race, not least because they are horribly expensive as well as dangerous.  However, there is a compelling quality to such races that once underway are hard to resist.

In the wake of HMS Dreadnought’s success, public pressure demanded more. Winston Churchill, then the Home Secretary (interior minister), once famously remarked, “The Admiralty had demanded six ships, the economists offered four, but we finally compromised on eight”. These days, the British plan for fourteen, the economist’s offer ten, but London usually compromise on six (if lucky). The rest of Europe? Most simply can’t be bothered.

The new revolution in military affairs is coming and with it a new HMS Dreadnought.  What is needed is a proper European future war study and a plan to turn words into action? Who should fund the study? Germany, of course!

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