Major Military Powers Need To Invest In Analytics, Not Nuclear Bombs

As the UK debates trident renewal, is it deadly nukes or data nerds we need?


The closest the world has come to abolishing Nuclear Weapons since their invention was in 1986 at the Reykjavik conference, where President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appeared to reach the same conclusion that it was in the best interest of the planet to be rid of them. The talks ultimately failed because Reagan wanted to keep the weapons in case of ‘some alien life form that was going to attack the Earth approaching on Halley’s Comet.’ The debate has raged ever since Reagan’s statement, with the majority making about as much sense.

The UK’s vote on renewing Trident - or at least ‘their own continued process of procuring the next generation of submarines which carry that weapon as part of the United Kingdom’s Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD)’, whatever that means - is likely to end with a decision in favor of doing so. A central argument against its renewal is the changing nature of the global threat, with nuclear weapons no longer seeming applicable. Terrorism is the primary threat facing major powers today, and this threat is agile, vicious, and resourceful. Dealing with an enemy of this nature using nuclear weapons is like trying to get squeeze a pimple with a steam roller. The solution needs to be as agile as the enemy and, in light of this, it is the far more prosaic data and analytics that are having the most impact.

Ronen Horowitz, former head of the Israel Security Agency’s IT unit, recently summed up the nature of the threat, saying, ‘We are looking for a needle in a haystack—very weak signals, when the enemy is highly sophisticated.’ Warfare is now focused on individuals rather than formations. This ‘individualization of warfare’, as Colonel Glenn Voelz describes it, has been fueled by several key technical innovations over the last decade. These include advances in digital and telephone surveillance, precision targeting drone technology, and biometrics, all of which pull together a tremendous amount of data from multiple streams of disparate, unstructured data for analysts that support both lethal and non-lethal targeting.

Analyzing this data is beyond the reach of humans, and the military is leveraging the same kinds of techniques being used in business to garner insights, including tools such as Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) to, according to Colonel Voelz, ‘enable data integration and advanced network analysis.’

The majority of press around data collection and its use in targeting has focused on the US, but all major military powers are heavily invested in the techniques. Ronen Horowitz claims that the Israeli military has already used it to hunt down and kill a number of enemies of the Israeli state - including several senior Hamas leaders killed during the Israeli incursion into Gaza Strip. In a recent interview, he claimed that, ‘I am telling you with certainty that quite a few [dead] terrorists are looking at us from the sky owing to Big Data capabilities.’

China too are investing heavily, with one engineer at China Electronics Technology, a producer of their military hardware, saying on record that their software was able to build ‘portraits of suspects by cross-referencing information from bank accounts, jobs, hobbies, consumption patterns, and footage from surveillance cameras’. Any unusual behavior could be flagged up and investigated immediately, and police can freeze bank accounts and compel companies to hand over records of their communications whenever is necessary.

Another fundamental shift in the nature of warfare is the increasing number of so-called megacities - densely populated areas often over 100 million. These cities present a huge challenge, essentially throwing more needles into the haystack and asking intelligence agents to find the sharpest one. These cities are, however, increasingly smart, with Internet of Things technology and have data-collecting sensors everywhere, revealing everything about its population. This data can essentially be used to map and model a city’s complete infrastructure and inhabitants within days, with any changes to this pinpointed real time as data streams are updated continuously.

In the West, as in the majority of the world, expectations about the conduct of war are such that modern militaries must find ways of accomplishing goals without targeting civilian populations and the infrastructure that supports them. Nuclear weapons are entirely at odds with this. The world needs smaller bombs that are better targeted, and it needs analytics to do the targeting. The debate around the negative impacts of gathering data are nuanced and finely balanced. The debate around the negative impacts of a nuclear holocaust are not so.

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