How Horizon Scanning Can Give the Military a Technological Edge


Feb 8, 2019

Man in a field looking at the horizon, photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared in UK MOD Guide to Defence and Security on February 8, 2019.

Keeping abreast of new developments and innovation plays a vital role in ensuring a military's capabilities are not outdated or overtaken by those of another country, as new science and technology (S&T) developments have the potential to transform the character of warfare and conflict.

There is a fast pace of change in research and development (R&D), with a greater number of actors, such as China, now investing in R&D and increased investment by the civilian sector.

The importance of S&T developments is recognised by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), and is highlighted in the MOD S&T defence strategy published in 2017. Specifically, this publication examines how S&T developments can help support innovation. Innovation is also a central pillar of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, as a means to help the UK sustain operational advantage.

Military budgets are finite, however, meaning they do not always cover the range of technologies, weapons and equipment—or capabilities—that the military may want to purchase. A decision then needs to be made to prioritise how resources should be allocated, with the risk that any investment in the wrong area may cost the military—in terms of both money and time.

One method that can help increase preparedness is horizon scanning. Horizon scanning is a methodology which searches for future and upcoming technology trends, and assesses the opportunities and threats these trends may present.

Horizon scanning flags breakthroughs and innovation across the S&T spectrum, with a research focus that can be as broad or as narrow as required, and that can extend beyond defence S&T. Unlike technology watch activities, which track specific technologies and developments, horizon scanning observes all new knowledge developments. This can allow for early analysis of technological developments happening in different fields before their emergence in the defence sector.

Early assessment of the implications and potential of S&T developments, as well as possible time frames for development, can help foster a better understanding of innovation occurring in different parts of the world, can help monitor capability development in other countries—ally or adversary—and can aid with spending prioritisation for governments and others.

Technology trends originating in civilian R&D also come under the microscope through horizon scanning. Large companies in the electronics and medical fields, such as Amazon or Roche, dominate in terms of R&D spending. For example, in 2016, Amazon spent around £12 billion ($16.1 billion) on R&D, compared to £1.7 billion (PDF) spent by the MOD during the same period. In addition to this difference in numbers, civilian companies have a narrower focus, whereas the MOD budget needs to cover a wider span of areas due to its broader range of interests. Using existing and emerging research from other sectors can therefore help the MOD minimise cost.

RAND Europe is currently undertaking a 24-month horizon scanning project for the MOD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which is looking for new developments ranging from medical technology to sensors, robotics, and everything in between.

The technologies and developments identified when scanning are extremely varied. In the publication of the first part of our work for MOD, we noted that this could include:

  • a Russian-developed nuclear battery prototype which has 10 times more power than commercial chemical cells and could be used for communication in space,
  • a new method for extracting uranium from seawater, which makes extraction easier, less expensive and more environmentally friendly—but could enhance global security concerns,
  • a brainwave surveillance technology, which certain Chinese companies may already be using to monitor emotions and other mental activities of workers,
  • and a nano-engineered graphene concrete, called graphcrete, which is stronger and more water resistant than regular concrete, and could help build stronger buildings, military or otherwise.

Horizon scanning can promote innovative practices and innovation uptake, through the adoption of new ideas, equipment, and methods. In addition, research which translates into innovation can spill over into other industries and sectors beyond defence, offering benefits that positively affect the UK economy as a whole.

However, horizon scanning on its own is not sufficient. A wider mechanism for processing and assessing the selected developments would be needed to determine whether and how these new technologies can be of use, or whether they should be monitored as potential future threats or deployed as counter-measures.

Greater and more intelligent use of this method and the data it collects could help the MOD and other bodies and organisations stay ahead of technological advancements, and remain aware of ongoing S&T developments. Not only is it helpful for planning purposes, decision-making, risk management, and maintaining the upper hand, it also reduces the risk of being caught by surprise by new developments.

Sarah Grand-Clément is an analyst at RAND Europe working in the area of defence, security and infrastructure.

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