Report

November 03, 2021

Promoting Technological Sovereignty and Innovation: Emerging and Disruptive Technologies

A Workshop Report

Emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) transcend the four-basket logic of the EU Strategic Compass as they touch on aspects of all issue areas. To break down this complex topic, the workshop was based on two input papers that focused on aspects of sovereignty and innovation. While the discussion cannot and should not be held exclusively in relation to the security and defense realm, participants were encouraged to highlight initiatives relevant for the scope of the Strategic Compass process.

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The EU’s Strategic Compass

Please note: In this online version you find the Introduction & Workshop Results Paper. For the full report, please refer to the PDF version here.

 

INTRODUCTION

By Dr. Christian Mölling

Emerging and Disruptive Technologies and the Strategic Compass

The Strategic Compass (SC) seeks to adapt the EU to an ever faster-changing security environment. Based on a joint threat analysis, member states aim to agree on clear and achievable strategic objectives in four “baskets”: crisis management, resilience, capabilities, and partnerships. These topics cover a broad spectrum of issues, and cannot be addressed comprehensively until the Strategic Compass’s presentation date in early 2022. Leaving the mechanics of this EU process aside, there are several topics the SC cannot afford to ignore. One such topic is Emerging and Disruptive Technologies (EDT). As with any other large concept, the outer boundaries of the definition of EDT, that is, what exactly it entails, remains fuzzy. And like any other important concept, it has become politicized as actors with vested interests use the term to further their political or economic objectives.

Technology has always played a fascinating and important role in security and defense. Hence, emphasizing and sometimes exaggerating the role of technology in security has been common for centuries. However, contemporary circumstances differ from the past in two important ways. First, EDTs are mainly civilian or, more precisely, commercial technologies designed for broad consumer variety with a myriad of applications all the way down to entertainment and other everyday uses. Secondly, technology has become one of the main fields of geopolitical competition, especially between the US and China. This brings with it the question of what type of global order will govern global technology issues and international risk management. It is here where the functional perspective of technology collides with geopolitics and geoeconomics. For these reasons, it is now necessary to reassess the link between technology and security.[1]

The E, D, and T in EDT

While the term EDT is somewhat nebulous and, in fact, describes a rather heterogeneous family of technologies, some common ground on its definition can be found.

T is for Technology. Technologies are human made applications and (although this is often forgotten) procedures that aim to solve human problems.

E is for Emerging. EDTs are part of a wave of new technologies that will be ripe to be transferred into the field
and into defense applications over course of the next 20 years. These technological areas are either currently at a promising stage of development or undergoing rapid, revolutionary advances. Examples of such broad technological fields are Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Autonomy, Space, Hypersonics, Quantum Computung, Biotechnology and Materials.

D is for Disruptive. Development in these areas will result in vastly improved defensive and offensive cyber capabilities; new generations of sensors, space-based capabilities, and autonomous weapon systems; and much-improved air and missile defense, drones, and long-range precision missiles. This will have a massive impact on security and defense, transforming the way armed forces are organized and equipped, as well as how they operate. Disruptive effects will most likely be produced by combinations of EDTs and the complex interactions between them.

The anticipated challenges of EDT for security and defense

Like all technologies, EDTs represent both opportunities and risks for the world in general, and security and defense in particular. However, in an environment of not only economic but also political competition where technologies are a key tool, what matters is exploiting them better and faster than competitors. This is especially true for EU member states, as well as the US. Western security and defense forces owe a significant proportion of their power and impact to technological superiority. In defense circles, this is often referred to as “quality over quantity” – having a technological edge against other, bigger armies. Current developments are fundamentally challenging this approach in terms of strategy, planning, and even military engagement. However, there is currently no prioritization to strategically guide investment, resulting in a fragmented landscape.

EDTs pose a serious challenge to EU and NATO states because other actors are challenging their technological superiority through independent innovation in strategically relevant EDT areas. This is more true of China than Russia as the latter has less capacity to systematically challenge technological superiority. Equally importantly, EDTs stem from civilian research, even if in some cases this is state-owned. Competition for consumers between commercial enterprises has led to shorter innovation cycles, especially in the area of information technology, and to a geographical diversification of centers of innovation, with new hubs emerging particularly in Asia.

The ability of non-Western actors to identify promising civilian innovations and increasingly incorporate these into defense applications has led, inter alia, to the perception of a growing erosion of conventional deterrence and defense capabilities relative to rising powers and new international security actors. Moreover, the civilian origins of these technologies, and commercial interest in them, further limit the EU and NATO’s ability to control their function and proliferation.

While Western states have started to integrate EDTs into their security and defense systems in an attempt to reclaim technological superiority, this task is also shaped by the need to meet legal and ethical standards, as can be seen in debates around the use of drones and the increasing autonomy of military systems. Moreover, as the coming years will be unlikely to see any significant increase in defense budgets, decisions on where investments in EDTs can make a difference, and to what extent cooperation is a solution, will be determined by short term business interests rather than the need to future-proof national and European security.

The Strategic Compass: How to think about EDTs and which technologies to prioritize

When thinking about EDTs, there are three important aspects that should be taken into account:

  1. The growing importance of EDTs and their political and security implications;
  2. The unclear scope of the term EDT and the lack of prioritization of key technologies;
  3. The risk of prioritizing short-term wins over long-term strategic goals.

Given these factors, it makes sense to engage in collective, systematic, and analytical stakeholder discussions about the relationship between EDTs and the Strategic Compass. Only by doing so can the EU hope to outline a relevant and sustainable approach to the issues at hand.

EDTs transcend the basket structure of the Strategic Compass because they touch on aspects of all issue areas. The following chapters look to further define the concept of EDTs, explain which technologies should be prioritized and why, and offer suggestions on how to incorporate EDTs into the Strategic Compass process in order to improve Europe’s technological sovereignty and innovation. As a result, this paper aims to offer input that will help answer two overarching questions: How should EDT be treated in the final Strategic Compass document, and which technologies should be prioritized?

These two questions are addressed in chapters 2 and 3. The final chapter notes the key takeaways from the stakeholder discussion.

 

WORKSHOP RESULTS PAPER

Compiled by Dr. Christian Mölling & Florence Schimmel

Emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) transcend the four-basket logic of the EU Strategic Compass as they touch on aspects of all issue areas. To break down this complex topic, the workshop was based on two input papers that focused on aspects of sovereignty and innovation. While the discussion cannot and should not be held exclusively in relation to the security and defense realm, participants were encouraged to highlight initiatives relevant for the scope of the Strategic Compass process.

Strategic Investment for Innovation

2.1. Participants agreed on the importance of foresight exercises to explore the potential developments and applications of EDTs, as well as the respective dependencies and weaknesses that might be implicated in the virtual and physical realms.

2.1.a. Such foresight should be informed by technology experts and policy makers alike, and conducted at the EU level to inform national institutions. Discussants concurred that member states need to increase coherence and cooperation, also regarding existing frameworks, to fully leverage European potential vis-à-vis other global players.

2.1.b. One speaker singled out the defense budget as the only multi-annual budget at the national level. This enables longer-term planning, but should not impede the ability to adjust it on a quarterly if not monthly basis, discussants agreed. Rapid developments, e.g. in quantum technologies demand agile political steering. The technology race was deemed real, but the speed of innovation was considered to be rendered useless if political action lags behind.

2.2. Such foresight exercises should translate into concrete roadmaps that, inter alia, set priorities and focus investment. Participants proposed clustering technologies in a family structure for a better overview, as well as clear and transparent communication.

2.2.a. There was consensus about the importance of the private sector. Consequentially, a common understanding of the top priority breakthroughs needed at EU level should guide both public and private resources.

2.2.b. Open communication about intents and goals was identified as an important part of signalling to the global partners and adversaries.

2.2.c. The focus of investment was rated even more important than increasing current investment levels. Precise, prescient, and long-term investment – financially and politically – is also what recruits and keeps talented workers in the EU. Some added that EU investment should ensure the results of the investment stay in the EU, and that the EU as a whole rather than single member states profits from the innovations derived from it.

2.2.d. So as to avoid costly and confining path dependencies, participants proposed following a modular approach in order to be able to “plug in and play” with innovations.

Institutional Set-Up for Sovereignty

2.3.  Some participants regarded the notion of dual use technologies as an unreliable concept. Any emerging technology – that is, technology with a low technology readiness level (TRL) – is potentially dual use at that stage. This is why some discussants found trying to separate civilian and military uses to be unrealistic, or even misleading. As well as needing both public and private representatives to work together, expertise from civilian and military end users (with the industrial base) should be incorporated at all times.  

2.3.a. In crisis management, likely future conflict theatres will include high-tech elements, and the need for interoperability is also likely to increase. In an inclusive approach, it is important to explore whether the modernization of existing platforms/systems or the development of new technologies is more cost effective.

2.4. Advocates of this approach also favoured framing the discussion around political-strategic problems and challenges rather than on EDTs (mission-based rather than tech-based). For example, access to verified and verifiable information is at the core of our democratic societies. With little cost or effort, adversaries such as Russia can inflict much damage.

2.4.a. This insight implicates the need for EU action beyond the Strategic Compass. In general, many participants brought up the potential of linking up all EU efforts in this area: efforts from the Commission, projects within PESCO, the EDA, the EDF, etc. An appropriate support structure could bundle together insights and expertise from the Commission’s scanning of raw material shortfalls to Green Deal implications and
national military planning. Also, it could prevent security and defense implications from being overlooked or excluded like in the AI strategy.

2.4.b. In this context, discussants stressed the importance of not overlooking older technologies by fixating disproportionately on emerging technology in relation to their general disruptive character. This links back to the importance of foresight exercises.

2.4.c. One speaker emphasized the need for a pragmatic 80/20 approach so as not to counteract the initial prioritization derived from the foresight exercise. Some added that pragmatism should also entail preventing short-term cost-effectiveness from hindering the goal of gaining strategic advantages over other global players. This could include producing in the EU despite higher costs.

2.5. The fact that most EDTs are not stand-alone technologies was raised. Therefore, a “system of systems” approach is needed that brings together various related EDTs (e.g. AI, cloud computing, automation, quantum-resistant cryptography, synthetic biology, etc.), stakeholders from the public and private sector, both civilian and military, and insights from fundamental and applied research.

2.5.a. The foresight exercise should also reveal the skill sets needed by European personnel as well as the wider population, and help with prioritization within the system of systems approach. Participants underlined that skill sets are not necessarily about very specialized expertise, but also include cyber hygiene skills, especially in strategic sectors.

2.5.b. Many believed that the EU wants to and should employ ethical standards, regardless of whether the its adversaries observe them or not. During the discussion it remained unclear at which stage ethical considerations would be best placed. This could especially touch upon the dilemma of proliferation, which is desirable in the civilian sector but not in the military sphere. 

On the Global Stage

2.6. Participants identified two major fields for potential cooperation with NATO: joint foresight and agreeing on matters of standardization. As the alliance and the union have many similar security interests, conducting foresight exercises together could both pool expertise and improve robustness of outcomes. Regarding standardization, the EU could profit from NATO’s capacity to harmonize and capitalize on its own strength of organizing implementation. Eventually, both initiatives serve the alignment of strategic and tactical behavior.

2.6.a. Discussants highlighted the importance of being able to keep up with and exceed Chinese and Russian capabilities. However, the necessity of cooperation was also labelled a reality. Some participants proposed exploring climate change mitigation technology as an area for cooperation. 

2.6.b. Some participants identified intellectual property rights (IPRs) as a potential roadblock for EU-NATO cooperation and it remained unclear how this could be mitigated.

2.7. One participant raised the UK Integrated Review as an example of putting scientific advancement and technological evolution at the center. EDTs could therefore be a promising issue area to catalyze joint approaches with the UK in security and defense cooperation.

2.8. One expert remarked that standardization (how tech fits together and works) is not the same as regulation (how tech can or should be used). Even more than regarding innovation, the players who dominate these areas of EDTs set the pace on a geopolitical level. The participants concluded that the EU needs strategies for cooperation and competition with both partners and adversaries: in good cases for leveraging synergy effects, in difficult cases for dealing with inadequacy and ethical approaches the EU does not agree with, but which are being employed by adversaries.


The workshop took place on 4th May 2021 with support from the German Federal Foreign Office. This paper sums up the main points of the discussion as perceived by the rapporteurs. It does not necessarily reflect their opinion. Participants included representatives from member state ministries and the European Union, as well as from the European think tank community. We thank all participants and especially our excellent speakers for their valuable input. Any comment is welcome and may be sent to schimmel@dgap.org.

 

 


[1]        I subsume the debate on a „Third offset strategy“ under the current debate. This debate has been started in 2014 by the US DoD: U.S. Secretary of Defense, “Memorandum,” November 15, 2014, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/OSD013411-14.pdf

 

Bibliographic data

DGAP Report No. 22, November 2021, 13 pp.

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