Britain’s geopolitical security and influence could be seriously hampered by adapting to modern information-age warfare at a “glacial pace”, the former head of RAF intelligence warned today.

Air Marshal Edward Stringer, who is also a former Director-General of the Defence Academy, said military preparedness relies on being quick to adapt to new threats, and that rapid advances in technology had left Britain lagging behind. He added that a more pragmatic approach was needed regarding the country’s legacy systems – the outdated military equipment and software still in use.

For future military success, he pointed out how crucial it is to retire costly aging equipment while assessing whether any legacy systems are compatible with new software or are capable of carrying out new missions. And since the UK has the fifth-biggest defence budget in the world, this should not be difficult.   

Air Marshal Stringer was speaking on a panel at the London Defence Conference, chaired by Lord Hague, and focussing on the future of warfare in three categories: air, space and AI. 

Christian Brose, chief strategy officer at Anduril Industries, an American defence company specialising in autonomous systems, declared that “future warfare is now”. For Brose, that means we must take seriously the challenges of changing our military from an old-school, hardware-centric model based on the power of aircraft, frigates, tanks and troops, to a software-centric model which is reliant on autonomous systems and drones for surveillance, intelligence and deterrence. 

Building cutting-edge technology at speed was an issue that surfaced regularly in the conversation. Dr Ulrike Franke, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said we must learn lessons from Ukraine. She said that both the Ukrainian military and private Ukrainian companies were becoming ever more efficient at building, repurposing and using drones while learning how to counter Russian drone offensives. As a result, Dr Franke also made the point that in a post-war Europe, we could see Ukraine leading the world in drone technology developments and exports. 

Another novel aspect of modern warfare that was touched on by Reaction columnist and author, Tim Marshall, was the increasing importance of space. With world powers, namely China and the US, aiming for moon bases in the early 2030s and satellite targeting becoming standard strategic practice, Marshall confirmed that “space is now a war-fighting domain”. He gave convincing reasons for the importance of modern space legislation – “rules of the road” – that could help settle competing claims to land and ethical practices around targeting enemy satellites crucial for infrastructure. 

The discussion concluded with some thoughts on whether the democratic West or authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia are better placed to win a technological arms race. This not only touches on the practical mechanisms by which nations can develop and utilise novel technologies quicker than their enemies, but it also strikes at the heart of what each side is fighting for. And much of the conference has returned to this integral point that Rishi Sunak outlined yesterday: the West is fighting for democratic, universal values against Chinese and Russian imperial expansionism.

But it is clear that we cannot understand the future of warfare or defence without a firm grasp of how new technologies will define the terrain. As Christian Brose said, the norms and ethics of new technologies will be set by the companies and countries that create them. The clear message from the panel was that the West cannot afford to let its enemies legislate the future of warfare.

Watch the 2023 London Defence Conference live here.

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