The digital battlefield
The digital battlefield is an umbrella term for various technologies used in 21st-century defense. Over the last few decades, the explosion of tech tools has presented both intriguing possibilities and legitimate threats.
War as we know it has changed forever.
What is the digital battlefield?
The digital battlefield refers to digital transformation in the tools used for war and conflict. The concept is outlined in the research paper The Digital Battlefield: A Behind-the-Scenes Look from a Systems Perspective (Siegel, Mandi, 2014). Per the authors, it describes the interconnection of all aspects of the US combat teams.
The benefits include increased combat power and a dramatic reduction in US force casualties. Booz Allen Hamilton, the IT and digital transformation consultants see the digital battlefield as the emergence of "integrated, interoperable" technologies powered by communication, display, and computing tools. Digital innovation means that "time is the new weapon."
Modern warfare also happens in places that don't require infantry and tanks. Instead, it involves the weaponization of ideas too.
However, the idea of the digital battlefield extends beyond the sites of physical contact. It also encompasses the idea that conventional war is just one part of the conflict. Modern warfare also happens in places that don't require infantry and tanks. Instead, it involves the weaponization of ideas too.
Research shows that almost 60% of the world is on social media. These spaces are a hotbed of disinformation and propaganda. The corruption of social media channels aims to destabilize societies and sow discord and division. These conflicts happen between traditional concepts of war and peace.
Actions of this kind help to achieve strategic objectives without using overt aggression. These "gray zones" or ambiguous warfare have been observed in Russia's expansionary efforts in recent years. Quite often, bad actors design these activities to expand the sphere of influence without triggering a military response.
Market reports suggest the digital battlefield is set for high levels of growth. Global spending in the sector in 2021 was $34bn. By 2027, that number is set to be nearer $84bn. That means a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.3%.
While the future of the traditional battlefield may well consist of crewless vehicles coordinated in remote locations, it won't be the only place where war is won and lost. Increasingly, rogue nations are turning to digital warfare that occupies the half space between peace and war.
Cyber-attacks may not result in bloodshed and destruction of buildings, their potential for harm is immense.
These gray zone tactics include cyber-attacks. While these attacks may not result in bloodshed and destruction of buildings, their potential for harm is immense. Economic ruin, ransomware, and theft of sensitive information all pose significant risks.
The QinetiQ report Confidence in Chaos outlines the different approaches to gray zone warfare. Threats include:
- Cyber-attacks on utilities and financial institutions
- Drone attacks deployed to shut down airports
- Electoral meddling by foreign governments
- Territorial encroachment
- Deployment of proxy forces
- Economic coercion (foreign national purchasing essential services for malicious ends)
These acts of aggression are designed to occur on the "sub-threshold" of war. Overmatch in military capability has driven adversaries to seek alternative methods. Nations need to adjust and adapt to these new types of warfare. These adjustments will involve changing how we think about war and adopting a range of new skills, techniques, and technology.
Of course, digital defense systems are also vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The digital battlefield's connectivity creates multiple targets and points of vulnerability.
Analytics will play an important role in cyber security. Behavioral analytics, ML, and AI can all be employed to watch the activity on your network.
Analytics will play an important role in cyber security. Behavioral analytics, ML, and AI can all be employed to watch the activity on your network. These tools can identify any changes to traffic or unusual events. From there, nations can address any issues.
Automation will allow a far more proactive approach to cyber protection. Data from previous attack attempts can help identify future tries. However, attacks are constantly evolving, so proactive detection is essential.
One area where we can catch a glimpse of this future is the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Ukraine and the digital battlefield
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a devastating moment for Europe and the world. The shock over the attack highlights how tensions simmering below the surface are hidden by gray zone war before eventually erupting into traditional conflict.
However, Ukraine's unexpectedly impressive performance is one of the conflict's emerging themes.
A big part of his work has been spent countering Russia's disinformation campaign. Another has been drumming up international support.
One of the major players has been Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's 31-year-old Minister of Digital Transformation. Fedorov worked as a digital communications manager in Volodymyr Zelenskyy's presidential campaign. Now, the country has been benefiting from his skills in a different, altogether darker campaign.
A big part of his work has been spent countering Russia's disinformation campaign. Another has been drumming up international support. Finally, and perhaps more crucially, his work has been useful in keeping morale high within the country.
Alongside social media and cyber-attacks, there have been other aspects of digital innovation in the Ukraine-Russia war. Satellite images and drones have also been a large part of the resistance.
One interesting element of the conflict is the tech world's support. For example, Elon Musk's SpaceX has allowed Ukraine to use its Starlink satellite to operate drones. Additionally, tech companies like Meta, Netflix, Twitter, and YouTube have cut ties with Russia in a bid to foster citizen revolt.
The future of the digital battlefield
Technological innovation will continue due to large defense budgets and a global thirst for advanced military equipment. Additionally, some helpful innovation and research will come from the private sector.
Geographical information systems (GIS) and satellite-based geospatial analytical solutions are two exciting opportunities. This tech can provide opportunities for monitoring opposition forces and information automation.
But perhaps the most significant innovation will involve analytics. Our lives and economies are increasingly played out in digital spaces. Cyber-attacks pose a considerable risk of a wide-scale disruption.
The digital transformation in our economies and defense systems represents a point of vulnerability.
With the lines between statecraft and traditional conflict becoming blurry, a shift in intelligence must occur. For one, gray zone threats are constantly evolving. So, any defense must be agile, and collaborative to provide consistent capabilities across multiple environments and domains, thus, strengthening its data sharing and unification efforts. Having a common data fabric will facilitate data sharing and improve synchronization between disparate or incompatible systems within the mission space leading to an integrated deterrence capability.
Analytics can provide proactive, real-time intelligence. It can use past data to understand patterns and make accurate predictions. The digital transformation in our economies and defense systems represents a point of vulnerability.
Defense automation, through data analysis, will boost intelligence and decision-making, equipping nations to deal with cutting-edge IT attacks, disinformation, and economic coercion.