Jun 26, 2023

Zeitenwende Blind Spot

Germany runs the danger of belatedly arming itself for yesterday’s wars. It needs to fundamentally change the way it thinks about military-technological innovation.

“Just buy all the commercial drones from all the manufacturers in the world and give them to us!” This was the answer given to me by a Ukrainian commander in an interview for a study on the question of how Germany and the European Union could further support Ukraine. At first glance, this sounds exaggerated. However, in view of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and its defense, it is a perfectly reasonable demand.

Drones are ubiquitous in warfare now. Attackers and defenders are using drones in previously unimaginable, vast quantities. Unmanned systems are the most visible part of militarily-used technologies that are on the verge of completely changing how we predict war or peace, the potential of forces, and the effectiveness of defense or deterrence. While we are still experiencing one Zeitenwende (“historic turn”) moment, the next is already casting its shadow.

The First Smartphone War

Our ideas of war have so far been shaped primarily by the battles of the Napoleonic wars—in which gigantic armies met on open fields—by the rigid trenches of the First World War, by the tank battles and encirclements of the Second World War, and by the live televised air strikes during the Gulf wars. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the resistance to it is the first smartphone war. Video footage is available everywhere, as well as satellite imagery and drone videos, which give friend and foe a whole new visibility.

And while the past means that we still look for recognizable front lines, marching troops, field battles, tank formations, and encirclements in these images and videos, it is buzzing kamikaze drones, small, fast units leaving scarcely any footprint, fighting in urban terrain, along with constant connectivity and data analysis, often with the help of artificial intelligence, that are already deciding the outcome of the war.

Looking at the warfare between Russia and Ukraine, it is not hard to imagine a near future in which systems using algorithms and AI drive autonomous weapons, in which attacks against energy and data infrastructures are natural parts of warfare, and in which military conflicts take place not on open battlefields but in densely populated cities full of civilians. We are not prepared for this.

Looking Ahead Instead of Only Catching Up

So far, the German reaction to the Zeitenwende has mainly been an overdue and rude awakening due to many years of laziness and widespread wishful thinking in security policy. Now, however, we believe we have finally learned that we must invest in our own security after all, although the tough debates about prioritizing security policy over other policies are still ahead of us.

In this context, there is a great danger that we are now acquiring military capabilities after the Zeitenwende that we did not want to finance in the last 25 years and that we would have needed 10 years ago. But, what about the capabilities we will absolutely need in three years, in five years, or in 10 years?

Have we really already analyzed, understood, and considered the technological drivers of changing warfare, a different logic of defense and deterrence that will come in the near future? Or will we soon have to experience, with horror and possibly brutality, a new watershed moment when it is brought home to us that we are not after all doing what is necessary to ensure our own security with lagging investments, with ponderous innovation and procurement cycles, and with self-centered debates that are far removed from reality?

Unfortunately, signs of the latter are palpable.

Losing Ground

Although Germany finally overcame the unique and lonely path of almost endless debates and impact assessments on the arming of drones as part of the jolt that change brought with it, by the time the decisions were made to acquire them, it was already clearly losing ground in this area. We are years behind others, and armed drones are just one example of many.

For instance, we in Europe currently have no launch capacity for our own satellite constellations that could provide permanent connectivity on battlefields in the future, nor are we constantly collecting data from our own exercises and missions everywhere; we could use such data as the basis for the development and evaluation of data-driven warfare.

We are still trying to develop military solutions driven by theoretical requirements and over-detailed planning frenzies in laboratories far away from real-world military operations. We are just setting the stage for the introduction of many new, large, complex, and expensive systems in the 2030s and 2040s, when they will probably be obsolete by the time they reach military units. If we commit the financial resources to this now and for years and decades to come, we will have too few opportunities for the development and introduction of new and innovative military technologies.

Doing Things Differently—Like Ukraine

Ukraine’s defense is currently showing us how this could be done in a different way. The Ukrainian armed forces developed powerful systems for data-driven combat with AI support within a few weeks and months and deployed them directly. What Ukraine achieved in 10 months would probably take 10 years in Germany, cost at least 10 times as much, and ultimately offer significantly less functionality and user-friendliness.

In view of the technological developments in the security and defense sector, our cycles of innovation, development, and test periods must become radically faster. Zeitenwende can only be the keyword here for fundamental and radical changes—including completely new personnel, much easier access for new companies and start-ups to contracting procedures, and completely new ideas in the defense sector.

Autonomous systems, data collection, and data analytics enable fundamentally new ideas for solving military problems that go in completely different directions to the constant path-dependent, incremental further development of platforms and processes that have mostly been in place for decades. Those who are open to this and know how to radically approach new solutions will have a military advantage in the future.

New Cost-Benefit Calculations

In the future, military advantage will also have to be determined by other cost-benefit calculations. New technologies are significantly changing the economics of war. Some advanced military technologies are even becoming increasingly democratized, mass-produced consumables instead of checkbook-maintained military equipment with a one-off character.

Here, too, drones are the harbingers of emerging developments. Already, attacks by massed drones are much cheaper than defending against them. Attempts to counter cheap Iranian, Russian, or Chinese kamikaze drones worth $20,000 to $50,000 with Patriot guided missiles costing $4 million apiece are likely to encourage rather than deter our future potential adversaries in military conflicts.

More economically viable air defense systems are needed that take advantage of new technological opportunities, try new approaches, and keep pace with ever-changing developments in drones, cruise missiles, and hypersonic weapons. New technologies fundamentally offer great opportunities to find cheaper new solutions to known military problems. Many start-ups are developing creative new ideas for this, especially since the Zeitenwende. Unfortunately, we in Germany are completely unable to scale these start-ups and bring them into military procurement processes. The new technologies then often migrate to the United States.

High Mobility, Not High Maintenance

But we are also in dire need of new technological approaches for financial reasons. For example, do we have to rely permanently on expensive, high-maintenance, large formations of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and artillery when the same military effect can perhaps be achieved differently and more cheaply with very high mobility and the greatest possible precision? Here, too, the experience of Ukraine in repelling the Russian war of aggression is groundbreaking.

Defense spending will continue to compete with other government priorities even after the Zeitenwende. Resources are always limited, and a great many threats and thus military necessities exist, so such considerations cannot and must not simply be wiped away because one has planned differently for decades or because one believes in the superiority of one’s own solutions, which, incidentally, have never been tested in an emergency, despite the real experiences of Ukraine.

Much has changed in Germany as a result of the Zeitenwende. What has unfortunately not changed so far, however, and has been discussed far too little in public, is that very many German universities do not even want to accept research funds for military research or dual-use research. While their geopolitical rivals are working on gigantic research programs to acquire military superiority, threat, and blackmail potential through the use of new technologies, German universities cling to civil clauses according to which science “may not serve warlike purposes.” Germany’s very substantial spending on research and development helps to secure competitiveness in other areas, but unfortunately not yet in the field of security and defense.

Permanent Innovation

Yet now more than ever, external security needs permanent innovation. After all, in addition to our defense capability and the guarantee of security, there is also the strategic issue of Germany’s and Europe’s future technological sovereignty. We already do not manufacture many components of the mass-produced drones mentioned here in Germany and Europe. Europeans are already in danger of losing out in lower orbit satellite constellations, for example, just as they once did with the internet and cloud computing.

If we do not manage the technological turnaround here, we will have to live with the fact that some of the most relevant technologies for warfare, defense, and deterrence of the future will only be available in the United States or China. In addition to opening up science for more defense research and dual-use research, we now urgently need European initiatives in which we strategically decide in which security-relevant technologies Europe still wants to be competitive in the future. Incidentally, for the ailing Franco-German relationship, this would be a very worthwhile task to launch such a European initiative for security and defense technologies.

The German response to the watershed moment of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine was and is necessary because decision-makers and the population in Germany remained in wishful thinking mode for too long and avoided vital decisions. For many in the security policy expert community and Germany’s important partners, the period before the Zeitenwende was long and frustrating. They associate the current phase with relief and hope. However, while political misalignments can be corrected quickly, technological and industrial changes take time. Situational decision-making is not enough. Foresight and strategy are needed. Hopefully, we are also learning this anew.

In view of autonomous systems, data-driven warfare, the military use of AI, and the “technological Zeitenwende” that this is ushering in, we should at all costs avoid wishful thinking in regard to security policy and mistakes similar to those made in past decades. In the world of new geopolitical confrontations, only the radical and rapid development and application of new technologies for security and defense will be able to prevent war, deter aggression, and preserve peace in the future.

Nico Lange is Senior Fellow of the Munich Security Conference’s Zeitenwende Initiative. He worked for a long time in Russia, Ukraine, and the United Sates and was most recently Chief of Staff at the German Ministry of Defense.

The German version of this article appeared in INTERNATIONALE POLITIK SPECIAL Reden mit der Republik.

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