P.W. Singer: Adapt fast, or fail

The overwhelming speed of technological development means armed forces must change their approach to everything from who they recruit and train to how targets are attacked and how a nation defends itself.

The warning was delivered in a speech to ASPI by Dr P.W. Singer, an American specialist in 21st-century warfare and a global relations scholar.

A strategist with US think tank New America, Singer warned that as more and more items were linked to the internet of things, the opportunities for nations and societies to be attacked became much broader. Internet attacks would have physical impacts and cost lives.

‘All of this technology does not mean that we will see humans eliminated from war anytime soon’, Singer said. ‘Rather, just like with the steam engine and the plane and the computer, we will see changes in the human skills that are most needed and less needed.

‘This movement of people skills can and should change everything from our recruiting and training to our doctrine and organisational structures.’

Singer is co-author of Ghost fleet, a novel on the future of war, and he’ll shortly publish LikeWar on the weaponisation of social media.

He said defence forces needed to recruit people with a broader range of skills. ‘We need to do more to think about not just the “what” of the technology or the “how” of the attack—the “who” of the defender is also changing.’

Trends now underway were amazing and overwhelming, Singer said, and there were no simple answers to any of them.

The key lesson was that to stand still was to choose to lose. In a time of rapid change, nations, companies and individuals that weren’t changing would fall behind. Being innovative and adaptive was the key to success or failure.

Singer showed a photograph of the battleship USS Arizona before World War II with two float planes aboard it. That reflected the navy’s concession to concerns that battleships would be vulnerable in the era of modern bombers. ‘They did just enough to avoid changing.’

Then the Arizona was sunk by Japanese aircraft at Pearl Harbor.

The focus shouldn’t be on evolutionary improvements, such as a slightly faster missile or jet, but on the technologies that truly changed the game, Singer said. ‘These go by various catchphrases: “revolutionary”, “disruptive” or “killer apps”. Think of these next technologies as akin to the steam engine in the 1820s or the airplane in the 1920s or the computer in the 1980s. They are real, not science fiction. They will change the world, but they haven’t yet.

‘The important warning is that what makes them revolutionary is not that they solve your problems. It’s the opposite. What defines them is that they’re technologies that present new questions which we don’t have the answers to.’

One question was, what would be possible that wasn’t possible before. ‘And they raise new issues of right and wrong that we weren’t wrestling with before. What is proper? These may be proper ways to recruit, organise or train, or issues of law and ethics that were recently the stuff of science fiction, but now have to be resolved by government and military officers.’

In this future there’d be not just smartphones but smart driverless trucks carrying freight—and smart military bases.

The biggest software shift might be in artificial intelligence, with machines able to not just mimic human decisions but make superior ones.

Studies showed several categories of such technologies, Singer said, including breakthroughs in hardware, specifically more autonomous robotics.

The first of these were large and centralised, mimicking the human roles that would be replaced.

The second category was small, networked, swarmed intelligence—tiny robots akin to insects. Each individual robot wasn’t that smart, but together could do highly complex tasks.

‘Our network of networks is evolving from being about communications between human beings to running the systems of our increasingly digital world. Roughly nine billion “things” are online now. In the next five years this will at least double, and likely triple or more. Most of these new things will shift from being computers on our desks and smartphones in our pockets to objects like cars, thermostats and power plants.’

This massive growth in the internet economy would dramatically increase the ‘attack surface’, the potential points of vulnerability that cyber threats would go after.

‘However, it’ll also be a bit like travelling back in time, in that the new growth in the internet replicates all the old cybersecurity problems. With responsibilities for security unclear, and almost no regulation or even basic liability, all too often these devices lack even basic security features, while customers are largely unaware of what they can and should do. Up to 70% of internet devices have known vulnerabilities, and they’ve already become a key part of botnets.’

The world had to prepare for cyberattacks which caused physical damage, Singer said. The pioneering of Stuxnet-style attacks that sabotaged industrial control systems and more and more ‘things’ which rely on these systems was a dangerous combination. ‘Internet attacks will cost not just money, but lives.’

These fundamentally different consequences would cause fundamentally different ripple effects. ‘The internet of things won’t just change the internet as we know it, but the very politics of cybersecurity. As opposed to opaque attacks with unclear consequences, attacks will be easy for the broader public and policymakers to see and understand. They’ll lead to far quicker and louder calls for action in response, from lawsuits to new laws.’

New technology raised huge questions for the future of robots and war itself, but also for the future of work, Singer said. This would be incredibly disruptive, akin to a new industrial revolution. There were 3.5 million truck drivers in the US and theirs was the most popular job in 29 of the 50 US states. The evolution of driverless vehicles would threaten their livelihoods.

An Oxford University study found that 47% of total US employment was at risk of replacement or reduction within our lifetime, Singer noted.

In 10 years, most of the world’s data would move through, or be stored in, the cloud and this was expected to result in more sophisticated attacks on cloud infrastructures.

New technology was often open and accessible to everyone, Singer said. The key to victory would be how it was all glued together.

Social media had become a battlefield, generating new rules for politics and war. Singer said that when a country such as Russia launched a campaign of misinformation in the US, the US should counter that by identifying the attack and pushing back.

If Facebook had changed its algorithms before the US election, America would have had a different president, he said.

It should be made illegal for anyone to allow a service they owned to be used by a malevolent foreign power to undermine a nation’s institutions and values. ‘When someone is spreading a foreign government’s misinformation, they are aiding and abetting the enemy’, Singer said.

‘It’s absurd that we let people get away with it.’

The US government had provided aid to Ukraine to educate its young people about how to identify fake news. ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if they did that in the US?’

The era of the multi-domain battle was already here, Singer said. Everyone from terrorist groups to Chicago gangs was now on the internet. During the fighting to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State terror group, IS fighters launched more than 300 attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces using commercially acquired drones.

Nations must consider what it could mean for them to have critical infrastructure controlled by adversary states. The advent on a significant scale of cyberattacks that physically damaged their targets would fundamentally shift the politics of cybersecurity, Singer said. That could involve making cars’ brakes fail, showers pump out scalding water or power grids go down.

Another shift was in how conflicts were begun and fought. Russia launched its digital blockade of Ukraine before it attacked its neighbour. Ukraine lost the cyber war before the actual fighting began with Moscow’s infiltration of its special forces in disguise, the so-called ‘little green men’.

In the case of a student who launched a gun-control campaign after a mass shooting at her school, fake images were created purporting to show her tearing up the constitution. That lie spread much faster than the truth debunking it.

Another issue, he said, was to ensure the right balance of quality and quantity so that fighters didn’t find themselves ‘sipping from the fire hose’ as they were flooded with ‘TMI’, or too much information.

The time when secrecy was assured was past. ‘There are no more secrets. The truth may be there but covered in a sea of lies.’