After years of defence cuts, a host of political parties are now eager to invest in the armed forces. It is essential to avoid the pitfall of focusing solely on frigates, armoured vehicles and jet fighters. Bullets and tanks cannot defend us against the modern-day threats of laser weaponry and cyber attacks. To stay ahead of potential adversaries such as Russia and terrorist organizations, the new Dutch government should double its investment in knowledge and innovation.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Cold War came to an end, Western European countries scaled back their armed forces. But Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, China’s growing assertiveness, the refugee crisis, IS, terrorist attacks and Donald Trump’s hard line on NATO have led to a sea change in public opinion. Europe’s defence capabilities need to be strengthened once again. Soldiers need to be properly trained and have access to sufficient ammunition, personnel and equipment; in recent years, this has been a source of great concern. But this focus threatens to distract us from a new and very real problem: are we ready for the war of the future?
Lessons from history
History contains valuable lessons. Time and time again, technological developments have been the decisive factor in military capability: from the 8th-century invention of gunpowder, which first made firearms possible, to the machine gun, the tank, radar and the jet fighter. Existing weapons simply could not compete with these game changers; an innovation such as the firearm was key to European global dominance. While a strong, efficient and well equipped army is essential, history teaches us that innovation is the clincher: we either keep one step ahead of the enemy or face defeat.
“A new government should not only increase defence spending in general, but should specifically raise expenditure on knowledge and innovation. Doubling the current investment to 2% would be a good first step”
3D-printed guns and mines
In the first decades of the 21st century, we are already seeing disruptive developments in weapons technology. In the year 2017, we are living in the information age and information is already being widely deployed as a weapon to influence public opinion, skew election results and disrupt weapon systems. The use of the internet and smart sensors in satellites and drones to gather intelligence about the enemy is on the increase. Artificial intelligence applications are providing unprecedented opportunities for commando warfare and the timely, safe and selective use of weapons. The effectiveness with which such applications utilize information is decisive for the capability of a country’s armed forces, equivalent in terms of military impact to the introduction of mass production during the Industrial Revolution. Other innovations that are expected to play a significant role within a few years include 3D-printed weapons and mines, military personnel with robotics-enhanced capabilities and the deployment of hypersonic missiles that can reach their targets in minutes rather than hours.
Investment in innovation
If the Netherlands and its NATO allies want to retain their edge over hostile powers, they have to be up to speed with the latest developments and use them as a basis for the ongoing renewal of their armed forces. Dutch Minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis is keen to emphasize the importance of innovation, as evidenced by her recent letter to parliament with the hopeful title ‘Firm footing in an uncertain world’. In order for innovation to provide that firm footing, it is vital that the government provides the necessary resources. Russia invests approximately 16% of its defence budget in innovation, while the Netherlands invests less than 1%. A new government should therefore not only increase defence spending in general, but should specifically raise expenditure on knowledge and innovation. Doubling the current investment to 2% would be a good first step.