Skip to content

Geopolitics & Security

Munich Security Conference: New Threats and Realities Require New Defence Capabilities


Commentary14th February 2024

More than 50 heads of state and hundreds of ministers will gather again this year at the 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) to discuss the big defence and security themes of our time. Attendees will discuss ongoing global conflicts as well as overarching trends like technological advances, growing geopolitical tensions, climate security, global governance and new security threats.

However, there is less attention on precisely how individual states, such as the United Kingdom, will need to shape their policies to achieve the right defence strategy for the era of artificial intelligence (AI), despite the urgent need for discussion and clarity.

The war in Ukraine and conflicts elsewhere in the world have demonstrated that countries need new capabilities to face the threats of our time. The use of drones has increased dramatically – particularly cheap, first-person-view (FPV) drones – with significant impact on the skills and equipment armies of the future will need. Linked with this is the increase in electronic warfare, as the skills of those using and defending against drones constantly evolve. Cyber warfare is also fast evolving and posing new challenges to states. Furthermore, quickly changing geopolitical realities and the increasingly confrontational nature of world politics create a hostile external environment that states need to navigate.

The report “Lose-Lose? Munich Security Conference 2024” rightly speaks of “growing geopolitical tensions and rising economic uncertainty”. Critical questions arise as a result of these trends and in response to the changing character of warfare. How should states operate individually and collectively? What capabilities do they need to operate independently and what assets are best deployed in concert with allies? Does a state like the UK need to continue to retain best-in-class multi-arm capability, or should it focus more strategically on capabilities in which it has greater strength?

This year’s MSC report identifies ongoing tensions in Eastern Europe, the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and the Sahel. These geographic risks are indeed rising, which makes thinking about capabilities that allow states to confront them even more critical.

We have been engaging with these issues and attempting to answer the critical question of how governments can best craft winning strategy in an increasingly fragmented and contested world. In an environment of growing geopolitical tensions and weak international cooperation characterised by fast-moving technological advances and transformative AI systems, old strategies will struggle to address contemporary challenges.

Five key areas stand out from our analysis, which we lay out below.

New threats require new defence capabilities. Rapid advances in AI and new technologies are changing the face of defence and require a fresh look at how states view their capabilities, skills and procurement, as well as how they work with the private sector to harness the best of cutting-edge technologies, science and innovation.

One example of how these capabilities can come together is the Geographic Information System for Artillery (GIS Arta) system being used by Ukrainian Armed Forces. GIS Arta is described by some as “the Uber of artillery”. The system allows users to identify a target, see which firing options are available for that target and then launch a strike. This can be done in as little as 30 to 45 seconds.

Technology is also changing the game in maritime warfare. Ukraine has deployed naval drones with success, recently using them to sink a Russian warship. In the Red Sea, a drone fired at United States forces may cost as little as a few hundred dollars or up to $10,000. To try to shoot down these cheap drones, allied forces may end up deploying vastly more expensive weaponry – for instance a Patriot missile, costing $4 million. The US company Anduril is seeking to address this disparity with its “Roadrunner” reusable combat drone that is understood to cost in the “low six figures”.

All the while “analogue” capabilities – like boots on the ground – have endured, but for how much longer? The current consensus is that the conflict in Ukraine has proven that while technology has changed many things about warfare, it has not replaced the need for infantry troops at the apex of conflict. The precise makeup of these forces, their skills and their size, however, is evolving.

Shifting geopolitical realities complicate the operating environment. The geopolitical landscape will become even more complicated in the coming decade. Politicisation of trade and increased confrontation make the world a more complex place. Regional and middle powers are trying to further raise their influence to shape war outcomes, adding extra complexity and uncertainty to great-power rivalry. Alliances are also shifting and adjusting to new realities, increasing inherent volatility in orientation, prioritisation and power-projection capabilities in the international system. These are realities that all states need to take into account. To succeed, governments will need to have adequate predictive capabilities, geopolitical foresight and regional awareness based on forward-looking trend landscapes.

Procurement processes need to be revisited for strategies to succeed. The technologies transforming the face of warfare are themselves changing at speed. As we have seen in Ukraine, technologies on the frontline evolve quickly, in a constant cat-and-mouse game to evade countermeasures established to stop them. This requires new ways of procuring equipment and capabilities at speed, with the state and private sector working ever more closely together. A good example of this has been the Brave1 programme in Ukraine that has allowed Kyiv to work closely with providers to develop new technologies and get these to the frontline quickly.

New critical skills are required. According to some estimates, a typical Ukrainian assault group of 12 to 16 soldiers is now accompanied by a similar number of drone operators. How these types of personnel are recruited and given a path to serve in the armed forces will be vital. This points to the growing need for AI specialists, cyber specialists and increased specialisation in general within the military. To address this the UK Ministry of Defence has, for example, spoken of expanding its capability to foster exchanges of skills between academia, industry and government, including through secondments. All of this will require fresh thinking on how to balance personnel capabilities, including the balance of specialists versus generalists as well as how to more closely engage the private sector, for instance via tours of duty for external experts.

A holistic, whole-of-government approach is needed to develop strategy. The right strategy-making to harness and deploy new capabilities on the battlefield requires a fresh approach. With the multi-faceted threats facing states in the current geopolitical era, closer cooperation is required both within government and between the government and the private sector to leverage the best of cutting-edge technology and innovation. A winning strategy also includes foresight capabilities, political and geo-cultural awareness of evolving trends, and adaptation to emerging realities, which should guide defence strategists to look ahead and anticipate change before it turns into a crisis.

As we at the Tony Blair Institute continue our work on the future of defence, we will be watching discussions at the Munich Security Conference closely. We'll be on the lookout for further detail concerning the key pillars of the policies that are urgently needed to not just create the right defence capabilities for today’s threats, but those on the horizon too. It is time for a reset on defence policy.

Newsletter

Practical Solutions
Radical Ideas
Practical Solutions
Radical Ideas
Practical Solutions
Radical Ideas
Practical Solutions
Radical Ideas
Radical Ideas
Practical Solutions
Radical Ideas
Practical Solutions
Radical Ideas
Practical Solutions
Radical Ideas
Practical Solutions