The War in Ukraine: Reality Check for Emerging Technologies and the Future of Warfare

The War in Ukraine: Reality Check for Emerging Technologies and the Future of Warfare
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The War in Ukraine: Reality Check for Emerging Technologies and the Future of Warfare

By Jean-Marc Rickli and Federico Mantellassi


Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked the beginning of one of the most intense and brutal state-on-state conflicts opposing two modern militaries in recent memory. Despite Russia’s qualitative and quantitative advantages, Ukraine’s armed forces have so far put up strong resistance, foiling Russian plans of a quick victory and turning the conflict into a bloody war of attrition. Due to its scale and the nature of its belligerents, the conflict can provide us with a glimpse into what the future of warfare might look like and help us recentre the burgeoning conversation about the future of warfare in the current reality, especially as it relates to the presence and impact of emerging technologies. The war therefore offers us a way to understand how digital and off-the-shelf technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) impact conflicts of this scale and how relevant they are to current modern warfare. The war can also help us see how new actors become involved in warfare, what new means of influencing nation states are becoming available, and which new tools armed forces can use to affect battlefield outcomes. Importantly, it can help us gauge their importance relative to more traditional aspects of warfare.

 The analysis is structured in four main parts. This introduction is followed by a short contextualisation to situate the analysis in the wider conversation about emerging technologies and the future of warfare (Part 2). Part 3 provides a short overview of the conflict so far, dividing it into six phases. Part 4 surveys the main elements of the conflict in Ukraine, outlining what emerging technologies have been present and critically assessing their role in the war. Part 5 delves into some implications for the future of warfare that can be understood from the dynamics analysed thus far, especially as they relate to the place of emerging technologies in future conflicts and their role in determining battlefield outcomes.

We argue that while some new technologies have come to characterise modern warfare, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict shows that many features of warfighting remain unchanged. Emerging technologies, such as AI and cheaper technological alternatives to traditional armaments, such as drones, are undoubtedly starting to change the battlefield and will play an increasingly larger role in future conflicts. Cyberspace and the globalised digital information space are bringing new actors and new means to exert influence, provide nations’ armed forces with new tools, and make battlefields increasingly globalised and complex.

However, the conflict also shows that traditional aspects of warfare will not decrease in importance or be sidelined. Conflicts remain a contest of wills and adaptation, where ammunition supplies, the quantity of traditional armaments such as tanks, and both the number and quality of personnel and the logistical and organisational ability to bring all these elements to bear all remain the most important determinants of success. While technology is playing an increasing role in this equation, it remains unable to determine the outcome of a conflict on its own.

Dr Jean-Marc Rickli is the Head of Global and Emerging Risks and the Founder and Director of the Polymath Initiative at the GCSP. He is also the co-chair of the Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfPC) Emerging Security Challenges Working Group and a senior advisor for the Artificial Intelligence Initiative at the Future Society. He is the co-curator of the International Security Map of the Strategic Intelligence Platform of the World Economic Forum. He is also a member of the Geneva University Committee for Ethical Research and of the advisory board of Tech4Trust, the first Swiss startup acceleration program in the field of digital trust and cybersecurity. Prior to these appointments, Dr Rickli was an assistant professor at the Department of Defence Studies of King’s College London and at the Institute for International and Civil Security at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. In 2020, he was nominated as one of the 100 most influential French-speaking Swiss by the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. Dr Rickli received his PhD in International Relations from Oxford University. His latest book published by Georgetown University is entitled Surrogate Warfare: The Transformation of War in the Twenty-first Century.
Mr Federico Mantellassi is a Research and Project Officer at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy where he has worked since 2018. Federico’s research and writing focuses on how emerging technologies impact international security and warfare, as well as on the societal implications of their development and use. Federico is also the project coordinator of the GCSP’s Polymath Initiative; an effort to create a community of scientists able bridge the gap between the scientific and technological community and the world of policy making. Previously, he assisted in the organisation of executive education activities at the GCSP and was the project coordinator of the annual Geneva Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge. He holds a Master’s Degree in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London, and a Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies from the University of Leiden. Federico speaks English, French and Italian.

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the GCSP or the members of its Foundation Council. The GCSP is not responsible for the accuracy of the information.