New Technologies May Provide Opportunities for European Crisis Management Operations

Blog | February 27, 2020


New technologies are influencing not only international politics and the global economy, but also the strategies and operational toolkits of state and non-state actors alike. Disruptive innovations are creating new threats, as well as opportunities for peace operations and humanitarian missions, and have complex implications for security and stability in and around Europe. Technology-driven advances create the need to adapt to challenges and new rules of engagement on land, in the air, at sea and in cyberspace. This topic is already widely-discussed in the international security policy debate. However, one area that has not been addressed significantly is the question as to whether new technologies can contribute to improve the ability and impact of European states and the EU to operate in situations of conflict and fragility.

The link between armed conflicts, peace operations and new technologies

Armed conflicts have been influenced both by the proliferation of technologies and their increasing availability to irregular armed groups. Such groups can now obtain know-how and hi-tech weapons in a relatively uncontrolled manner by, for example, making use of “civil war economies” (according to Conrad Schetter, this has been the case in Afghanistan). Militias have gained strength by using digital recruitment tools to attract fighters in internationalized armed conflicts (in particular, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq and Libya). In addition, new technologies can increase the probability of conflict spillovers into neighboring states, as has been observed in Syria and Lebanon. Digital dissemination of false narratives may generate unintended effects that can escalate conflicts and endanger missions where there are substantial European troop deployments (for example, MINUSMA in Mali).

On the other hand, peace support operations increasingly rely on advanced technological solutions that may differ from those used by armed forces operating in their homelands. This includes new information and communication technologies (for example, cloud computing for military networks), innovations in areas such as command and control (navigation warfare and geo-operations), mobility (autonomous vehicles, drones) or logistics (energy storage, 3D printing).

There is no “European approach” to international crisis management

European states are becoming increasingly reluctant to supply troops to missions in high-intensity conflicts, a key example being the reticence surrounding MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As such, it is unsurprising that new technologies for force protection and safeguarding of civilians in hot spots with European contributions are becoming important; for example, mine-clearing robotic systems in the Western Balkans (KFOR, EUFOR Althea with substantial Austrian presence) are gaining relevance, yet, they have not been harnessed to their full potential.

European troop contributions are relatively small, though some states provide more “technologized” troops—like Austria‘s logistics contingent at UNIFIL in Lebanon—as well as military assistance, such as training and advising Malian forces in EUTM Mali. According to Joachim Klerx, the increasing “digitalization of peace operations” creates opportunities for strategic interaction (for instance with the local population), but also renders peace support activities more vulnerable to hacking, malware or other methods of information warfare.

New technologies are increasingly shaping the peace and conflict agendas

Global navigation satellite systems (GNSS)—such as Galileo, GPS, GLONASS or BeiDou—are both instruments of and subjects to a broader navigation warfare. These systems can support the mission command and enhance situational awareness but are also subject to attacks, since most of the satellite signals are unprotected.

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies can support Big Data management, media monitoring and intelligence to inform better decision-making in missions. However, adversaries can make use of AI for disinformation campaigns, deepfake videos or GNSS jamming and spoofing. Missions will have to adapt to respond to this threat, in particular, by protecting their navigation systems.

Some missions, like the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, have become increasingly dependent on drones to control and monitor the area of operation. Effective use of unmanned aerial vehicles to collect information and evidence on security-related issues ensure successful mandate implementation and attract political attention. Therefore, drones are enhancing the legitimacy of the mission. This could also be the case in a prospective UN-mandated mission in Syria.

It is a myth that new technologies are decisive to improve the output and impact of missions

The relevance of new technologies for peace support is increasing as GNSS, drones, geo-information systems or social media offer multiple benefits to operations. However, it is likely that threats to UN, EU, NATO and OSCE missions currently outpace the benefits of new technologies. The decisive factor is the access to technologies and expertise, which has become easier for adversaries to obtain. Cyber attacks increasingly target missions; for example, the loss of a drone in combat or peace operations means the loss of crypto-algorithms (as was the case in Ukraine, Libya and Yemen).

New technologies can be a game-changer for future peace operations, but strategic oversight is needed to make full use of them in the field of leadership, information, mobility, protection and sustainability. The priority should be given to the most functional and time-proven technological solution. In the age of Big Data, new technologies can help to quantify risks and probability of conflict escalation and enhance early warning systems for fast response. Cross-domain expertise is crucial to institutionalize a comprehensive, situational awareness center for international crises with inputs from all “whole-of-nation-approach” stakeholders in Europe.

However, many European armed forces lack the necessary resources to invest strategically in new technologies to fulfil peace support ambitions and obligations. More collaboration and a focus on research and development, increased civil-military research cooperation, pooled funding and private-public partnerships in the field of technology may help solve this dilemma. There is no doubt that a broad spectrum of military and civilian capabilities is required to increase the impact of European contributions to international peace support and conflict management. Smart technologies are a viable part of this spectrum.

Dr. Markus Gauster is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Support and Conflict Management (IFK) of the National Defence Academy in Vienna, Austria. This article draws from his recently published paper in IFK Monitor International: "New technologies – new impacts on international missions of Austria?" Click here to read the article.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute