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How GCC can harness emerging defense technologies to strengthen domestic capabilities

RIYADH: A new military revolution is currently taking place, built on emerging technologies that continue to push the envelope.

Technological advancements in various areas are disrupting the world, and the defense sector is no different.

As the threat perception is constantly changing with the increasing use of newer technology, future wars will be fought on a diverse landscape. Hence, countries that are investing in building future-ready capabilities will survive in this ever-evolving defense space.      

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, or AI, lethal autonomous weapons, known as LAWS, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, biotechnology, and quantum technology will shape the future battlefields, as identified by a recent US research paper titled: “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues.”

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are up in the business to acquire many of these latest technologies to modernize their defense capabilities, but when it comes to developing these systems locally, industry observers say, they lag behind.

“To develop new weapons, a country has to have a strong base of engineers and technical craftsmen,” said David Des Roches, professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, the National Defense University in Washington. 

He pointed out that the basic science and know-how to develop these advanced systems are available to few countries. “Most countries instead adopt the existing science and use engineers to develop it incrementally into better weapons.”

“The challenge the Gulf states face is that they don’t have skilled craftsmen actually to make the weapons, and they don’t really have the engineers,” added Des Roches. 

A push to build that capability is happening, but there is still a long road to go.  

For instance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have established ambitious universities of science, but the defense expert pointed out that “they are yet to take root; and the engineering culture needed (for this), is somewhat neglected.”

Additionally, most of the trained craftsmen these countries have are generally expatriates. “The Gulf states are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to trying to develop these new types of weapons,” adds Des Roches.

However, Munira Mustaffa, a non-resident fellow at Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, in Washington DC, takes a more positive note on the issue. The GCC, she said, has the budget to invest in many of the new technologies. “Key is to develop technologies and services to such a degree that other countries and allies would want to buy into the projects and programmes.”

While “off-the-shelf” options may be cheaper in the long run, if the rapid development of technologies continues, she said GCC states should look to bespoke options tailored to their specific defense and security needs.

Economically, the GCC populations would probably accept an increase in defense spending, Mustaffa added. “Socially, there may be considerable efforts needed to promote the need for defense technology and (those) should be linked to the states’ education systems and job creation programmes,” she underlined.

For Mustaffa, the cost has the greatest impact on the military. She explained that limited budgets mean that most countries now have to choose between large numbers of troops and expensive pieces of equipment like tanks and ships or invest in automation such as AI and other technologies.

“These are all expensive and require well-trained people to operate and maintain these new capabilities,” added Mustaffa.

For example, the US Department of Defense’s investments in AI has grown from over $600 million in 2016 to approximately $874 million in 2022, with the department featuring over 600 active AI projects, according to the Congress Paper. The paper further added that the Pentagon had earmarked $3.8 billion in 2022 for hypersonic weapons and $248 million for hypersonic defense programs.

Business economics 

Incidentally, more and more emerging technologies have both military and civilian applications — a critical factor that plays a very important part in determining the viability of such projects.

“While many see drones as an exclusively military technology, they are now widely used for humanitarian relief, delivery of supplies to remote or isolated areas, delivery of blood transfusions and medicines, etc.,” said Mustaffa.

Small drones used for tactical reconnaissance can now replant trees after forest fires, monitor endangered species and even deliver your Amazon package.

This means that most of these technologies are closely in sync with developments in commercial technology. “The drones that Amazon is trying to develop to deliver pizzas are perfectly suited for delivering explosives to targets,” said Des Roches.

So the old models — where a factory could produce either refrigerators or rifles but not both — are eroding. 

As a result, the economic cost of adapting new commercial technology to weapons is decreasing, while the costs of re-tooling production lines for new weapons are also decreasing. “The old ‘guns or butter’ argument is increasingly becoming irrelevant,” underlined Des Roches.

This could mean more countries will be able to produce these new weapons. Yet, strong cooperation between the private and public sectors is essential for these new military technologies to grow.

New age threats

As we live in the Information Age, warfare would require most sectors to consider “defense” from threats such as cyberattacks, insider threats, and corporate espionage.

“Traditional industries like media and entertainment now find themselves on the frontline of fake news and disinformation, for which many are ill-prepared,” said Mustaffa.

The main focus of all these technological advances is to use them for military purposes. These new technologies aim to develop an ability to incapacitate an army force and strike an enemy anywhere, even far from the battlefield.

“Different militaries are seeking both to harness these technologies as well as to defend against them. In the short term, the advantage is with the offense, as the defense takes some time to catch up,” said Des Roches.

But, he believes, “it will catch up.”

He draws parallels to what happened in WWI when the Germans used Zeppelins to drop bombs on London. “No one in Britain had foreseen the possibility of an aerial attack on their capital, but eventually defensive technology caught up.” 

For Des Roches, what makes this period different is “the cycle of measures and counter-measures, which used to be measured in months and years, is now measured in days and hours.”


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