Mobilisation in the Information Technology Era

By Peter Layton.

Artificial intelligence, big data, virtual reality, robotics, cloud computing. The information technology (IT) revolution rolls on, progressively changing the world. The revolution is most obvious to us professionally in areas like the digital battlespace and fifth generation warfare concepts but also individually in our smart phones, chat rooms and social media accounts. There is however, an overlooked area where these aspects intersect and that is mobilisation. It’s a dry term albeit fundamental. Mobilisation involves “being ready to execute a specific operation”. It’s at the core of everything the Australian Defence Force (ADF) does.

Mention mobilisation and people instantly think of world wars, gigantic factories churning out military hardware on a vast scale and society wide conscription. In reality, any ADF operation where more personnel, money or material is required than the normal peacetime rate of effort involves some form of mobilisation: selective, partial, within government or national. It’s simply the process of moving from preparedness to being able to undertake and complete a particular operation.

The IT revolution has now reached a stage where it could potentially markedly change how the ADF thinks of, prepares for and undertakes mobilisation. That’s the good news. Worryingly there is also a dark side where hostile states or non-state actors could now use mobilisation as a weapon against us.

The upside is embodied in the emerging fourth industrial revolution (4IR). With the 4IR cluster of hyper-connected IT technologies, ADF personnel could directly design or request one-of-a-kind items on the internet, electronically pass this to an advanced manufacturing plant, negotiate schedules, arrange delivery and manage on-going maintenance and sustainment. This is the exciting world of three-D printing where production batch sizes can be small or on-demand without impacting production efficiency. F-35 stealth fighter parts and drones are being produced this way while the US Naval Air Systems Command has already approved some 1000 printed parts for fleet use. With the fourth industrial revolution, units in the field, at sea or when deployed to distant bases could print their own spares, becoming semi-independent of the logistics supply chain. Maintenance spares resupply might become a connectivity issue, not a transportation one.

The concept of prototype warfare extends these notions into being able to optimise the equipment being manufactured on an almost continuous basis. The time lag between new challenges arising and technological responses to these could drop dramatically. Intriguingly, this might not just be mobilising for strategic challenges but also tactical ones: “consider the implications if a commander had the ability to select from a catalogue of weapon systems while planning for a mission and they were manufactured based on her specifications.”

However, there are issues. 4IR involves extensive networking and close integration between all participants including across national boundaries, company and bureaucratic hierarchies and life-cycle phases. Such collaboration requires using common standards but there is no agreement on these. The outlook is for several 4IR ‘islands’ across the globe each with different standards that will not necessarily interconnect seamlessly. The ADF’s mix of US, European and Australian defence equipment may create some real 4IR interface problems. These might be best addressed early on in the acquisition and initial logistic support phases of bringing new equipment into service.

Moreover, printing equipment and parts to order may be technically feasible but will the original equipment manufacturers allow their intellectual property to be used in such a way? They may prefer the ADF wait several months – or even years- to allow them to supply required spares. Support contracts would need reconceptualising to take full advantage of the 4IR mobilisation possibilities. The converse probably also holds: the equipment acquired will need to be designed and built under 4IR to provide the optimum mobilisation potential. Mobilisation demands might drive our future force structure.

Thinking more broadly, the issue with intellectual property is that companies don’t want their competitors to learn their trade secrets. The ADF though is not a business competitor. Companies might agree to license the ADF to hold and use 4IR digital data on all the spares able to be rapidly replicated to the appropriate certified standard using advanced manufacturing techniques. Importantly, holding such data in Australia would help overcome worries about timely global connectivity – including from cyber attack – in times of conflict. Its’ use though might be problematic as items from a very large number of companies might need manufacturing. To sufficiently reassure all the various companies about IP protection, the ADF might need to build and operate its own advanced manufacturing facility: a back to the future vision of reinvented national arsenals?

On the negative side of the IT revolution is that external powers can use the new technologies to prevent Australian governments’ mobilising the public to support ADF military operations. Worse, these powers could try to mobilise the Australian people against the government or the ADF. Both could be achieved by meddling in Australian society through accessing our personal devices and social media pages.

There seem three broad types of strategy an attacker might use with simplest being inducing chaos. The Russian approach is to amplify divisive social issues by employing a wide-ranging disinformation attack across a nation’s political spectrum. Whether any particular groups are supportive of Russian policies is irrelevant, the aim is instead to drive them to being more confrontational towards others.

The second strategy is supporting some useful domestic group albeit technically harder. Now however, big data, artificial intelligence and social media is making large-scale manipulation of sizeable interest groups feasible. This is all quantitatively quite different to the small-scale targeting of susceptible individuals by ISIS using human-intensive techniques.

The third and most difficult strategy is changing people’s minds. This strategy includes acting top-down through ideational leaders and here big data, data mining, micro-targeting and deep fakes offer new technological solutions to locating and influencing key individuals.

The Russians have always thought deeply about military affairs and how to exploit technological developments and changes in the character of war. Now they are focussing on mobilising the people against their governments. Drawing on perceived lessons from the Arab Spring and the colour revolutions, Russian thinkers contend countries can now be readily destabilised, almost on command. In early March Russian General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov declared that: “The information sphere…provides opportunities for remote, covert influence…on the population of the country, directly affecting the state’s national security. That is why the study of issues of preparation and conduct of informational actions is the most important task of [contemporary] military science.”(Google Translate)

Talking about social mobilisation may seem arcane. However, with external social disruption operations seemingly likely for the foreseeable future, thought needs to be given to responses. Greater efforts to build legitimacy and craft persuasive strategic narratives may be needed.

Our fundamental ideas about mobilisation are being challenged under the impact of the IT revolution. Impacting all of us, this is an area deserving our close attention.


Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and a RAAF Reserve Group Captain. He has extensive aviation and defence experience and, for his work at the Pentagon on force structure matters was awarded the US Secretary of Defense’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on grand strategy and has taught on the topic at the Eisenhower College, US National Defence University. For his academic work, he was awarded a Fellowship to the European University Institute, Fiesole, Italy. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

This article was originally published at ‘The Forge’ and is done so here with permission. 

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