Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Guest Editor’s Corner Fall 2020
Guest Editor’s Corner Fall 2020

Guest Editor’s Corner Fall 2020

Access the Orbis Fall 2020 issue here

We are pleased to introduce this special issue of Orbis, which explores the national security implications of various emerging and disruptive technologies. For the last several years, interest in this topic has surged, and rightly so. The speed at which technology is advancing continues to transform our way of life in dramatic fashion. These emerging technologies have had similar impacts on national security as well. Rising regional powers, and global powers, such as the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States, are racing to develop capabilities which they hope will enhance and transform their warfighting capabilities.

The intensifying competition to acquire capabilities to dominate or to pace an adversary has profound geo-political implications, including arms racing, inadvertent and intentional escalation, or even conflict. Uncertainty about others’ intentions and capabilities is a central driver.

Discerning how one’s adversary might use a capability, the classic formula of threat perception, is challenging, and the capability end of the equation is even more complex. It is uncertain who will “win” the competition to be the first mover to develop and deploy new technological capabilities, and it is unclear what “winning” or “dominating” the battlefield actually looks like. Actors are also unsure if normative or strategic considerations will constrain the introduction of a potentially game-changing technology—a capability which may break taboos. Such technology might be bio-engineered weapons, or a potential challenge to strategic stability, such as applications of hypersonic weapons. Thus, developing the technology is no guarantee of success; the key will be how well these technologies are used in concert with other emerging technologies and how they enhance existing concepts of operations. These scenarios are unknowns also. But one thing has become clear, technology is running ahead of strategy and policy, and this is due in part to a thriving commercial industry that is taking a leading role in developing these novel technologies. In sum, it is hard to know how these developments will affect warfighting and bigger issues such as the balance of power as well as global peace and security.

In the context of these unknowns and the prevailing uncertainty, this special issue seeks to identify and better understand some of the ways in which emerging technologies affect national security.

In this regard, this edition makes a unique contribution to understanding the intersection with policy. While much has been written about some of these novel technologies, including quantum technologies (such as advanced computing), autonomy, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), hypersonic weapons, biotechnologies, and 5G, this special issue provides insights on a select few from a different angle.

The issue begins with Mariel John Borowitz, Lawrence Rubin, and Brian Stewart, “National Security Implications of Satellite Technology.” The article explores how the dual-use nature of recent advances in satellite rendezvous and proximity operations and on-orbit servicing technology; their proliferation as a result of military requirements and changing commercial markets; and the absence of a set of norms and rules government behavior affects the security environment. The authors assert that in an era of renewed great power competition, and the increasing number of state and non-state actors in space, these emerging technologies could have a destabilizing effect on global peace and security.

Some emerging technologies such as AI often are treated separately from others, but their ubiquity has led many to describe AI as the new electricity because it is so well integrated into other technologies and into our lives more generally.

Along these lines, this volume contains two articles that explicitly address AI, but from novel perspectives. Bringing our attention to the risks inherent in these technologies that use AI, Michael C. Horowitz, Lauren Kahn, and Casey Mahoney in “The Future of Military Applications of Artificial Intelligence: A Role for Confidence-Building Measures?” contend that states cannot be certain how innovations change the implicit rules of warfare. Therefore, the authors recommend pursuing confidence-building measures (CBMs), the type used during the Cold War, as a model to mitigate AI-related risk.

In “Artificial Scientific Intelligence and its Impact on National Security and Foreign Policy,” Erica Briscoe and James Fairbanks introduce us to the important topic of how AI has revolutionized scientific learning and what the implications are for U.S. national security. In addition to the most obvious applications, which include its use in autonomous weapons, big data collection and processing, and ultimately decision-making, a seminal point of the article is that AI systems will affect the pace at which scientific discovery proceeds. This reality cannot be taken for granted; how AI systems advance will have a direct effect on policy questions of where and how to invest to develop future military technologies.

Continuing this theme of pursuing new thinking in dealing with the human elements of technology, Derek S. Reveron and John E. Savage call for a new approach to cybersecurity to incorporate human security in “Cybersecurity Convergence: Digital Human and National Security.” The authors assert that the current environment has upended old models of how states have dealt with threats in which they were focused more on responding to physical attacks which have much clearer juridical lines. Yet, today the overlap between the physical and virtual worlds and governmental and corporate actors is much more complex and requires a new model.

Specific cases are part of the connective tissue for this special issue to illustrate how and when these technologies matter. In “The 5G Question and India’s Conundrum,” Harsh V. Pant and Aarshi Tirkey show how this technology affects ties between rivals through exploring India’s response to the debate on 5G technology. They conclude that India’s “wait and see approach” underscores the complexity of the decision-making process in the context of pressure from commercial stakeholders, security liabilities (from China), and infrastructure/societal demands in the midst of a geopolitical rivalry between the world’s two most populous countries armed with nuclear weapons.

New technologies—especially in the field of communication—applied in a different context may also have the counter-intuitive effect of what many originally hoped. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein in “How High-Tech Can Boost Regime Stability in North Korea” makes the argument that technology actually may increase authoritarianism. Instead of greater technology penetration leading to liberalization through more information and more ability to mobilize and align preferences, Silberstein suggests that this controlled process enables the regime to monitor and control dissent more efficiently.

No conversation would be complete these days without some mention of COVID-19. Among the lessons the on-going crisis has shown us is the level of chaos, fog of war, helplessness, and even the potential power that biological threats and biotechnology can yield. The latter is among the key threats that General Breedlove said keeps him up at night when I interviewed him.

Margaret Kosal provides insight into the national security implications of one revolutionary biotechnology, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR). In “Emerging Life Sciences and Threats to International Security,” Kosal argues that since these techniques and technologies allow for easier manipulation of genetic code, new thinking is required for biosecurity and other emerging technologies because of their impact on proliferation, deterrence, and unconventional weapons.

Why this Matters: Practitioners’ Perspectives

Interviews with Admiral (ret) Winnefeld and General (ret) Breedlove provide important reflections on their experiences and their thoughts about the future of the intersection between emerging technology and security and the associated threats, opportunities, and challenges. While these insightful comments speak for themselves, I’ll highlight a couple of themes that underscore previous points found in this essay. One of my main take-aways is the importance of remembering that it is one thing to develop a technology, but it is another thing to know how, from the start, you will field it and how it might affect the strategic environment. As General Breedlove notes, you need to have enough of these new capabilities to be able to employ them credibly in a fight; you need to know how it enhances existing force posture and structure; and you need to think about how it may affect your adversary’s threat perception both in the short and long term. And to this end, Admiral Winnefeld recommends we may need to return to first principles to think differently about this potentially interminable and disadvantageous competition to develop and employ emerging technologies. This might include older political and economic tools of warfare to challenge an adversary like China at home where it could be most vulnerable. Winnefeld emphasizes this broader point in noting that technologists and strategists need to be in constant dialogue. This engagement will not only affect government planning, but also design choices by manufacturers of these emerging technologies that the government seeks to acquire.

Our last article provides a “bridge” to the next issue of Orbis by linking emerging technology, environmental change, and great power competition. In “Arctic Ice Loss Threatens National Security: A Path Forward,” Anthony W. Strawa, Gary Latshaw, Stanley Farkas, Philip Russell, and Steven Zornetzer propose geo-engineering as a way to introduce and mitigate the effects of global warming. The National Arctic Ice Restoration Initiative is a way to reduce challenges to U.S. national security.

Orbis welcomes Nickolas Gvosdev as its new editor. He provides an Epilogue to this special volume.