by Ursula von der Leyen, German Minister of Defence

The German Minister of Defence describes in what way the most recent technological innovations influence the Federal Defence. However, the Bundeswehr faces challenges with digitalisation too, whether they emerged internally or they revealed themselves as a serious external threat.

Digitalisation will without a doubt be one of the major topics of the coming decade. There is not a single area that will not be hugely impacted by it – administration, economy, and ultimately our entire society. The change has already begun – and it is gaining momentum. Here are some figures and keywords to illustrate this: This year, 8.4 billion devices are said to be connected to the Internet of Things – more than people living on this planet. 3-D printing, 3-D scanning and reverse engineering are turning entire industries upside down. Education and science are being revolutionised by cloud computing und streaming technologies.

Of course, all this has had an impact on the internal and external security of nations and their armed forces. They, too, must face the facts of digitalisation and go along with the changes, which hold tremendous opportunities for the operational readiness and combat efficiency of the military. However, there are also challenges, both technical and cultural in nature. Let me illustrate this by taking a look at the Bundeswehr.

The Bundeswehr is a major organisation. It employs about 260,000 men and women, roughly 180,000 of which are soldiers. Approximately 1.1 million e-mails are sent from Bundeswehr offices every day. Digitalisation thus offers the opportunity to make the administration of the Bundeswehr more efficient and more effective. In 2017 alone, we have spent about 1.6 billion euros just on digitalisation and IT. Add to that another 1 billion euros in personnel expenditure. The range of investments is wide, from new radio equipment to computer hardware to contracts with service providers.

But digitalisation is not only important in administration, however, it is not only key to modern management, it is also, and particularly, crucial in military operations. Because everything that moves, whether on land, at sea or in the air, is increasingly supported by digital systems: The Eurofighter, for instance, contains 80 computers and 100 km of wires – which is, of course, a dream come true for any hacker. It therefore comes as no surprise that an average of 4,500 attacks are carried out on Bundeswehr systems every day.

This is not only a matter of equipment, however, but also of data and communication. Because every “battle”, whether it is fought on land, at sea or in the air, is at the same time always a battle for “informational power”, which is why armed forces such as the Bundeswehr need their own networks and software to be both functional and resilient.

New Structures

This is precisely why in the past three years, we have created completely new structures in the Bundeswehr: In a first important step, we pooled all cyber and IT responsibilities within the Ministry of Defence in a new Directorate-General in October 2016. It is headed by a Chief Information Officer, a newly established post, who has architecture and budget authority.

In a next step, the German Cyber and Information Domain Service Headquarters began operation in April 2017. In addition to the “traditional” services – the Army, Air Force and Navy – the Bundeswehr now disposes of cyber forces amounting to approximately 13,500 troops. In this way, we are responding to the demands of the cyber and information domain as a military dimension, thus increasing visibility, efficiency and the flow of knowledge in this strategically crucial area. Because by now, cyber/IT forces are no longer secondary service providers nor “mere” facilitators, they have become essential.

Expanding our digital capabilities

These organisational decisions and subsequent restructuring have made us something of a trailblazer in Europe, as not many nations have dared take this step yet. We intend to maintain this leadership role and expand it, particularly in terms of technology. First of all, we will earmark funds explicitly for disruptive and exponentially developing technologies. And secondly, we will enhance our own digital capabilities. To this end, we opened a ministerial research facility entitled Cyber Defence and Smart Data at the Bundeswehr University in Munich in June 2017. We are investing heavily in this project, including more than 70 million euros for new infrastructure and over 12 million euros of permanent investments. By this we will create 13 new professorships and 65 permanent positions for research and technical associates. In the long run, we want Munich Bundeswehr University to become one of the key research and development facilities in governmental IT security research.

Along with the research activities, we are also massively expanding academic training. In January 2018, a new international and interministerial master’s programme for cyber security will begin at Munich Bundeswehr University. Moreover, Pöcking on Lake Starnberg is home to the Bundeswehr Communication and Information Systems School. It hosts around 500 training courses annually with 5,000 participants.

In order to expand our digital capabilities, we must also take account of key drivers and sources of innovation such as start-up and digital companies in a more systematic fashion. This is why we have been testing what we refer to as the Cyber Innovation Hub since September 2016. Its task is to identify and promote disruptive technologies. In this context, we are actively approaching drivers of innovation and start-up companies.

With the Cyber Innovation Hub we have established a platform that is urgently needed to deal with rapidly changing technological innovation. The US Army used to make essential contributions to new technological developments in accordance with this principle. Just think about ARPANET in the 1960s and 70s, which played a huge part in the development of the internet. Today, however, the military is often left behind by technological innovation in the IT sector. We must change that.

Incorporating digitalisation in leadership training

Digitalisation is of course more than just a technological challenge, it has also a massive impact on the conditions underlying leadership and leadership culture. Thanks to digitalisation, all hierarchical levels have unlimited access to very diverse information today. Communication between superiors and subordinates can be transmitted virtually in real-time across these levels. All of a sudden, the highest-ranking leaders at home are able to “look over the shoulder” of common soldiers in their country of deployment. While there are benefits to this scenario, it also entails the temptation of giving orders over a distance of thousands of kilometres – and going over the head of the superior in theatre. Whenever someone uses technological innovation and a computer screen to interfere with somebody else’s work, this is more than just distrustful and patronising – it fails to recognise the simple fact that the soldier in theatre usually has the best qualification for the specific situation and also has a lot more information at their disposal.

And then there is still the matter of responsibility: Permanent “remote micromanagement” will ultimately eradicate independent thinking and acting among our military personnel. This would spell the end of mission-type command and control, which is one of the successful leadership principles practised in the Bundeswehr. What we want to achieve is quite the opposite. For this reason, we must incorporate digitalisation particularly into leadership training.

Another task is to develop processes in order to securely and profitably use the exponentially growing amount of information and data we can collect today thanks to modern technology. Our problem today is no longer a lack of data, as it used to be for military leaders in past centuries. Our challenge lies in rapidly and effectively filtering and interpreting this gigantic amount of information.

Generally speaking, digital transformation requires organisational culture to be transparent and open. We must transform the well-known “need-to-know” principle into a “need to share”. But at the same time, we must see to it that information and data reach their destination accurately – in terms of both time and level of detail.

Handling Big Data

Finally, training and leadership must deal with some key questions created by big data and advanced analytics: How do we train users in handling data, but also in handling algorithms? Big data analysis is always based on assumptions which lead to statistical probabilities. This ranges from tools rating the creditworthiness of individuals to programs forecasting the progression of crises and conflicts. The models underlying these tools may be based on wrong assumptions, however, or assumptions may change over time. This is why it is so important to know and to discuss them. Moreover, predictions – even if they are based on Big Data – are never more than probabilities. They are not predetermined, they are not “facts”. For instance, while the highest probability level in a scenario may be only 30 percent, a program would rate such a scenario as dominant. But 70 percent would contradict this scenario! This is why algorithms, their functions, the opportunities and risks they entail are a top priority at the command level. That is the ambition of the Bundeswehr.

Digitalisation as an opportunity for armed forces

As we see it, digitalisation is more than a leap in technology. We want to use digitalisation as an impetus for re-evaluating our structures, our work processes and our “corporate culture”. We want to modernise, learn and innovate – without abandoning what is tried and trusted. For armed forces such as the Bundeswehr, digitalisation is a great opportunity to increase effectiveness and efficiency, which in turn increases operational readiness and combat efficiency. This will enable us to better fulfil our mission: to continue to protect the security of our people despite the crises and new dangers of the 21st century.

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