Against the Tide: A red team view of tech trends in NZ’s national security

T.E. Lawrence
Redefining victory: British Army File photo of T.E. Lawrence, 1918.

Red teaming includes war-gaming, physical and digital penetration testing, alternative futures and alternative analysis. In this article, Dr Simon Ewing-Jarvie, Chief Disruption Officer at Torquepoint Ltd, discusses the latter two in the context of emerging technologies and national security.

Alternative analysis

Understanding complex issues, such as technological challenges to national security, requires the inclusion of an alternative analysis approach. It’s essential to challenge analytic assumptions (‘devil’s advocacy’), and expand the range of possible outcomes considered (‘what-if analyses’ and ‘alternative scenarios’).

Around 50 countries are actively working on military-grade robotics. Much of that work is protective, support or surveillance-based in nature. However, most of what we see and hear in the media is about the enormous potential for autonomous lethality while removing humans from the battlespace.

Much of this hype could be considered information operations. The leaders in military technology fields wantothers to fear their technology and lose the will to fight.

But it doesn’t necessarily work.

Amongst other things, it fails to take cultural perspectives into account. The ‘fear’ is based on a western perspective. To someone in a different culture, for instance, the sight of a drone overhead is just a sign that the enemy is too scared to come fight in person. It reaffirms the view that they only need to kill a few more to achieve victory.

T.E. Lawrence understood this and wrote about redefining victory during the Arab Revolt in the latter half of World War One – change the meaning of events rather than the events themselves. He called this semantic warfare ‘diathetics’, a phrase borrowed from the Greek philosopher Xenophon. It’s a battle for the stories people will tell and for the public consciousness that emerges out of those stories. A struggle for meaning.

The first aim of this is to provoke a massive over-reaction. The larger goal is to reorient the behaviour of the enemy. To alter the mindset to a state of despair and counterproductive reaction. 9/11 is a classic modern example. Every time we are screened at airport security we are reminded that the most powerful nation on the planet was unable to keep its citizens safe at home. Al Qaeda, in terms of its strategic goals, won.

What military tech capabilities are evolving rapidly and are they truly disruptive?

We are seeing significant advances in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance and AI capability that seeks to make sense of the massive amount of data generated in a world of sensors. There are also huge advances in force protection and mobility – both autonomous and manned. Precision-guided munitions are the third large capability group.

In anticipation of tactical nuclear weapon use disrupting communications during the Cold War, Soviet tank crews coordinated movement on the battlefield with flag signals.

Whenever an antagonist has struggled to match the technological advantage of the opponent, warfare has inevitably become asymmetric in nature with the outcome not always to the advantage of the high-tech force.

Australian Army Officer, Mark Gilchrist, sums it up well. Advanced militaries must be careful to avoid a situation where military technical determinism guides strategic thinking. Indeed, if the experience of the last twenty years has taught us nothing else, it is that technological superiority does not guarantee military success.

Enjoying this article? Consider a subscription to the print edition of Line of Defence.

Sun Tzu warned, “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” In a similar vein, technology without integration, or a conceptual underpinning, is the hype before the let-down. Technology enables tactical actions to advance a strategy — but technology cannot replace tactics. Militaries cannot mitigate a lack of strategy nor support operational concepts purely through a reliance on technology.

In WWII, German Panzer and Tiger tanks were technologically superior to any other tank on the battlefield. There were several reports of ten-to-one kill ratios. The trouble for the Germans was they couldn’t deal with the 11th, 12thand 13thT34 that appeared. The ability to manufacture, deploy and sustain was, and is, more important than the technology.

Robotics is a far bigger game changer in the logistics chain than on the battlefield.

Alternative futures

Due to the conditioning effect of entertainment and gun camera news clips – ‘war porn’ – new tech is linked in people’s minds with war and policing. However, New Zealand’s national security challenges are far broader in scope:

  • A pandemic is the most dangerous scenario
  • Biosecurity breaches are likely to have the greatest economic impact
  • Displaced people in the region arising from global warming is potentially a big problem. Furthermore, depopulated islands, either through emigration or evacuation is not a great outcome if you don’t want some other country to come in and occupy them.
  • 97 percent of our imports and exports travel by sea. Loss of freedom of navigation of sea lanes would cripple our economy.

Rather than attempting to keep up with the emerging battlefield technology of the likes of larger, wealthier nations, we should think asymmetrically as a nation. It makes sense for our research and development efforts to be focussed on these areas of need and consider:

  • Autonomous, protected humanitarian assistance systems will be a game-changer and don’t carry the ethical and legal baggage of combat systems.
  • Likewise, autonomous scientific systems for places like Antarctica make sense and contribute to science and security.
  • Why slug it out in contested space when there are relatively uncontested areas to focus on, such as the maritime sub-surface domain and autonomous sub-surface vessels?
  • Competition is mounting for elements and rare earths needed for batteries, optics and circuits. As an example, 42 percent of global cobalt supply is used for batteries. It is estimated that up to 10 percent of the world’s supply of lithium and cobalt could come from recycled materials by 2025.
  • Why not accelerate automation of our manufacturing sector to support these opportunities?

Policy implications

‘So what’ for New Zealand policy? For a start there is no national security strategy. New Zealand has a handbook that describes, in increasing detail, how the various silos of Government interact in a security situation. That is not a strategy – that is what you get after several committee meetings. A national security strategy requires, amongst other things, buy-in from the community. That conversation has yet to take place.

In October 2014, then Prime Minister Key created a new portfolio for National Security and Intelligence. He took it on himself. Operational oversight of the GCSB and NZSIS was passed to the Attorney General. The current government has taken a similar approach with Jacinda Ardern holding National Security and Andrew Little the Justice, GCSB and NZSIS portfolios.

There is, however, no budget for the national security portfolio.

According to some government officials, the ODESC system (a committee formed by the heads of all domestic and external security agencies) is sufficient to react to an emergency. The committee will determine, amongst other things, the lead agency. The major weakness of this approach is that it is reactive.

Other officials think it sufficient that New Zealand’s response to an attack of any sort, in legislative terms, is based on the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act. ‘All risks – all hazards’ is the mantra.  An as yet unforeseen threat to New Zealand’s security will be handled by a Minister outside Cabinet using laws designed to respond to and recover from natural disaster.

There are many more examples but these two highlight the need for a fresh set of eyes on national security.

New Zealand needs a National Security Advisor. Not for political optics but for independence and the ability to bring together the many coloured threads required for the cloak of national security.

To be truly independent and in order to maintain national security policy momentum across electoral cycles, the National Security Advisor should be an Officer of Parliament. They would operate with an independent crown entity under separate legislation and budget in the same manner as officers such as the Auditor-General. The appointment should be at least five years.

This new National Security Agency would become the focal point for national security-related research in our universities, think tanks, and industry. It would be the strategy bridge for new policy initiatives. Most importantly, it is where a coherent national security strategy would be formulated. The Minister for National Security – the Prime Minister – would be more than just a title.

First published on 27 September 2018.