GCC countries need to prepare for the next wave of change in military technology. Armed forces across the world are increasingly integrating digital technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics into defence platforms and military operations. In the foreseeable future the armies of developed countries will deploy robotic vehicles, whether for transport or combat, providing them with a significant combat and intelligence advantage.
GCC governments will need policies to deal with these new weapons over the medium and long terms. In the short term, GCC militaries, in common with most armed forces around the world, will procure these weapons from the small number of countries that produce them. These developed country suppliers possess advanced manufacturing capabilities such as intelligent automation.
To avoid being left behind in the future, GCC countries will need to take lay three foundations upon which they can build the digital military of the future. The first is to understand that digitization has a national security component.
The second is to develop the digital talent needed to provide the programmers and operators of unmanned, autonomous, and robotic platforms. The third is to reconsider doctrine and training to incorporate these systems fully into operations.
As recent years have shown, cyberattacks can be against infrastructure or against political processes, leading to economic losses and instabilityHaroon Sheikh
First, while digitization is a core component in all GCC national development plans because of its potential for job creation and economic diversification, it also has sovereignty implications. Slow digitization will deprive the GCC of more than just opportunities in e-commerce and telecom sector development. However, insufficient military digitization could lead to countries being unable to defend themselves.
Already the GCC has been a significant target for cyber attackers seeking to damage the vital oil and gas sector. As recent years have demonstrated, cyberattacks can be against infrastructure or against political processes, leading to economic losses and instability.
GCC leaders therefore need to ensure that national development plans ensure that their countries will fund the development of the necessary technological capabilities to allow their armed forces to keep pace with their competitors and to defend the country against cyber security threats.
Second, GCC armed forces should seek to foster digital talent as part of a broader transformation of their military human capital systems. GCC militaries need to have recruitment that is more attractive, provide first-rate training to plug skills gaps, use personnel more efficiently so they have rewarding career paths, and then help them when they retire and reintegrate into civilian life.
This is particularly important for those with digital skills such as cyber security and data analysis. Retirees can play an important role in deepening the digital skills pool. Already Saudi Arabia is helping military retirees to become entrepreneurs supplying the defence sector. In addition, GCC countries can allocate some of their substantial military spending for local military digital development, including through military venture capital.
Change in doctrine
Third, the new military platforms and systems that are emerging demand a substantial change in doctrine and training. Deploying robotic systems on the battlefield will be quite unlike changing to a larger calibre artillery piece, for example.
The US military understands the difference that these systems will make and is already experimenting with human-robotic “centaur” teams (named after the mythological creature that was half man and half horse).
GCC militaries need to start preparing now if they are derive the full benefit of these systems. Such changes to doctrine and training will also allow GCC armed forces to define their own requirements for autonomous, robotic, networked and other digital platforms and systems. This will avoid them simply buying off the shelf an often expensive and sometimes overly complex “solution” developed for Western military needs but with limited application in the Middle East.
GCC countries have impressive ambitions when it comes to economic transformation. These countries have moved from third world to first world income levels in a little over a generation. However, they risk missing the growing digital revolution in military technology, putting their ability to protect these achievements at risk.
Haroon Sheikh is a Dubai-based Partner with Strategy& and the leader of the firm’s defense and operations practices in the Middle East. He serves military clients across the region on a wide range of logistics and supply chain improvement strategies. His work encompasses all areas that support military operations, including innovative work on strategic partnerships with industry, capability development, and implementing large-scale ERP systems. He has helped clients roll out world-class concepts and fast-track organizational development.