20 Jan 2023
by Pete Furlong, Dr Melanie Garson

Harnessing the Power of Tech Companies for the Hyperconnected Battlefield (Guest blog by Tony Blair Institute for Global Change)

Guest blog by Dr Melanie Garson, Cyber Policy Lead, Acting Director, Internet Policy Unit and Pete Furlong, Senior Analyst at Tony Blair Institute for Global Change #NatSec2023

Possibly one of the greatest of Putin’s miscalculations as he planned his invasion, was not the extent to which the Western populations would be willing to suffer economically to defend Ukraine, but underestimating the power of global tech companies, particularly those that form the basis of the global internet system, to tip the balance of power and alter the course of the war.  Even before the first shot was fired it was the decisive and rapid action of global tech companies shoring up Ukraine’s cyber defences that helped frustrate Russia’s ambitions

Traditional military-investment models that rely on capital-heavy hardware with long production lines are challenged in the new, integrated domains of war. Modern militaries also have to prevent malicious cyber operations on critical infrastructure and systems as well as manage the cognitive domain – the use of social media, networking, messaging and interference that distorts thinking, influences action and hinders decision-making. This type of warfare requires access to technologies that can be rapidly deployed across these multiple domains.

Tech companies’ dominance of the communication infrastructure as they diversify through the internet stack, from devices to subsea cables, has allowed for the crucial cooperation to plug the holes in the digital frontier of the conflict. From cybersecurity to relocating critical data, Russia found itself facing not only the brightest military cyber-minds but also the might of the global commercial cyber-community. Creating the mechanisms to call upon this power is the key to accessing the software to win a hard war.

However, the reliance on private tech companies for plugging supply chain shortages, repurposing of dual-use tech and communications infrastructure in geopolitical crises creates new vulnerabilities.  As we highlighted in our report Disrupters and Defenders: What the Ukraine War Has Taught Us About the Power of Global Tech Companies, there are no clear guarantees as to the long-term engagement of large tech companies and their role in bolstering power in the conflict. Their withdrawal of commitment could come as easily as their engagement and could therefore materially disrupt the course of the war. This vulnerability has been exacerbated recently as Elon Musk threatened to stop paying for Starlink in Ukraine, despite the Ukrainian army’s reliance on the service. There is no viable alternative that could be implemented within a year. Similarly, DJI has condemned the use of its drones by both sides, halting sales in Ukraine and Russia. This means that national sovereignty could become dependent not just on access to a specific technology but also on the whim of an individual CEO.

The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the operational shortcomings in even the best militaries. Security and resilience are no longer just about spending but also about fostering an environment where the military can act coherently across the physical, cognitive and virtual domains. This requires a whole-nation approach that closes the gap between government and industry so that resource needs can be quickly met and the conceptualisation of the army of 2040 does not wait for the technology of 2040 to arrive but is developed alongside new disruptive technologies.

As the character of warfare evolves, the UK has an opportunity to establish itself as a leader in rethinking how governments, international institutions and companies cooperate to ensure consistent coordination in countering emerging threats to national and international security.

Firstly, the UK should ensure access to a diversified and resilient supply chain and communications infrastructure through bringing together the signatories of the Declaration on the Future of the Internet into a Digital Infrastructure Defence Alliance (DIDA) – a practical mechanism for states to coordinate on regulatory and internet infrastructure issues. This mechanism should also include commitments to plug holes in the critical-tech supply chain and network architecture of members and allies, either individually or in concert with commercial companies.

Secondly, the UK should encourage and equip tech companies to have a robust and transparent policy for engagement in international crises: With tech companies able to tip the balance of a conflict through their collective engagement, greater transparency is needed with regard to their decision-making about intervention and withdrawal. As heroic as Starlink’s initial intervention was, negotiating military agreements on Twitter can reverse gains and lead to strategic vulnerability. Creating a geopolitical crisis board of experts and key policymakers that can provide clear guidance on a company’s priorities and commitments as the conflict shifts is vital to long-term strategic stability.

The UK should also foster close-knit tech ecosystems that allow mutually beneficial circulation of innovation between sectors. Countries with siloed tech ecosystems are finding themselves ill-equipped to respond to the demands of the hyperconnected battlefield. Fostering innovation for security and resilience requires a tech ecosystem where there is a close nexus between the military and commercial tech companies. This increased collaboration with tech companies is crucial for long-term advantage on the future battlefield.

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Pete Furlong

Pete Furlong

Senior Analyst, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Dr Melanie Garson

Dr Melanie Garson

Cyber Policy Lead, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change