Perhaps rather ironically, the concept of “innovation” is not really a new one. Today we tend to associate the notion of innovation with intangible and abstract algorithms and data sets, or scenes from science fiction – technologies that simultaneously exist everywhere and nowhere.
However, true innovation in itself is simply: the creation and application of a new product or process that makes life easier, better, and more efficient. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the defence sector, where revolutionary innovation has historically occurred because of research and development instigated by the military.
Take the invention of machine tools at the Robbins and Lawrence factory, as an example of seamless and obvious technological convergence. During the throes of the American civil war, the need to improve the erratic performance, speed and agility of old breach-loading rifles inherited from the British, and transform them into repeat-fire, quick-to-reload, efficient tools of war to outgun adversaries, led to a process of precision manufacturing which not only gave the North an upper hand in the war, but also led to a future world driven by technology.
Consequently, by following the outcome brought about by military demand, commercial firms added machine tools to their product lines and benefited from the use of innovations in their core industries as well as being able to sell the innovation model to other sectors.
For many years, military innovation had been the driver of civil-use innovations and technologies including the now indispensable internet, GPS and the combustion engine. But today, the situation is not so clear cut.
At present, the commercial market has the edge on artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and big data analysis driven by Silicon Valley’s venture-driven start-up model, while military maintains the edge on cyber warfare and digital psychological-operations.
The situation though, is increasingly fluid.
Take for instance, the well-documented search for an electronic vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVOTL) flying car for military ends. In practice, an eVOTL vehicle would allow the rapid shuttle of troops and equipment in and out of widely guarded war zones in tight spaces.
It’s no secret that the technologies that will procure the sought-after eVOTL flying car are already available from work in the commercial sector. So, instead of starting from scratch programmes that compete with commercial tech development, the defence sector must embrace developments already out there, leveraging synergies and collaborations with the commercial technology developers. Doing things like sharing set levels of test space and certifications, could have a major impact on the commercial sector they’re looking to crack.
It is here, within this new commercial-military collaboration space that the next generation of revolutionary innovation will come from.
Of course, there is no silver bullet for military innovation, especially today. There’s no one programme or product that can capture and deliver on all the demands we are keen to address. But the growing urgency to accelerate technological innovation and to assert leadership in the field amid an environment of global competition and increased surveillance, is clear and obvious.
While earlier disruptive military innovations and their successful realisation have taken us so far, it’s time to rethink how we can harness 4.0 technologies across an array of sectors, such as the additive manufacturing for lighter, more cost-effective aircraft parts. Or how we can integrate AI-processed data with human creativity to procure newer, smarter weapons. Or indeed how we can deploy autonomous aircraft to safely patrol and observe potentially dangerous conflict scenarios – the list is exhaustive. In short, it’s time to confront the gaps in standardised military development and acquisition processes to revamp the way we approach innovation.
As the world changes, so must we. We inhabit a hyper-connected world where information and ideas are now travelling faster than ever. A world where technology is becoming more accessible, where primitive technologies can nullify multimillion-dollar assets, and where simple prototypes built from YouTube tutorials become disruptors that can alter the balance of power on the battlefield by exploiting vulnerabilities in existing systems through asymmetric advantages.
As such, the nature of defence and security threats, and the distribution of power is shifting.
And we must shift and innovate with it to keep our world safe.
Dr Fahad Al Yafei is the president – Platforms and Systems at EDGE