Dual-use tech for military and civilian use is the next ‘new normal’

dual-use tech
Image by Hamara | Bigstockphoto

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard a lot about how the rise of remote work, digital services and online shopping heralded the ‘new normal’. It’s fair to wonder now if the Russian invasion of Ukraine is fueling another ‘new normal’ in the sense that it has not only divided the world, but also accelerated military investments and triggered a new arms and technology race. From this, it seems likely that dual-use technology – that is, technology that can be used for both peaceful and military aims – will emerge to play a very important role.

I wrote earlier how the war could accelerate technology development as a whole. Technology developed by the military often finds civilian uses – GPS, SUVs and ARPANET are three obvious examples. But increasingly the opposite is also true – when consumer technologies develop rapidly, they can be used for military purposes as well.

For example, one way to support Ukraine in the war has been to send soldiers and combatants non-lethal equipment such as night vision devices (NVDs), optics, vehicles, drones, clothing and tactical medicine. According to an organization that has raised funding to send such equipment to Ukraine, old cars, NVDs and drones enable a soldier to drive a certain location, observe enemy activities and vehicles, and then use a man-portable missile. Only the missile is actual military equipment – the rest comes from the consumer market.

Consumer tech often offers a cost-effective option compared to military-grade equipment, which is typically very expensive. That’s why many countries are looking for more innovative new solutions to utilize more cost-effective technology. Consumer tech also typically follows a faster development cycle compared to military tech. In a way it’s similar to the way that enterprises have sometimes adopted consumer devices and services because they’re cheaper and commercially available sooner.

Dual-use technology can emerge either from the military or the civilian side of the coin, but it can also be developed for both military and civilian customers simultaneously.

Dual-use drivers

Cost-efficiency is perhaps the most important driver for dual-use tech – when a technology can be used for many purposes to many kinds of users, it means more customers to share the development and production costs. One way to do this is to have similar hardware for military and civil use, but then have different versions of software for different needs. This keeps hardware costs lower and also makes it easier to deliver high volumes to the military.

Another factor is that wars are also changing. In addition to the traditional model of two large armies fighting each other with clear front lines, there is also the “grey-zone”, defined as “competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality.” In other words, conflicts can include different kinds of actors, but there are also several levels of conflict between peace and war. This means that public safety & security and military organizations need different technology for different situations.

I was a member of a workgroup that was looking for ways to utilize off-the-shelf products for grey-zone, hybrid and military operations. We looked at all kinds of everyday products that could be used in a crisis, from mobile phones and messaging apps to drones, Raspberry Pi and Wi-Fi routers.

For example, in the past, many military organizations tried to forbid their troops from carrying their personal mobile phones – but nowadays, many organizations have seen this is impossible. In the Ukraine war, we have seen that Russian troops exposed their location by using mobile phones and unencrypted communications. But at the same time mobile phones and even messaging apps can be also an effective way to communicate if they are used right, e.g. with an extra encryption layer. They can also offer better tools for the military to communicate with other authorities and organizations (e.g. local authorities, police forces, fire brigades and health care).

Drones and satellite services such as SpaceX and Starlink are also good examples from Ukraine of how civilian technology has been utilized in the war. Drones and satellite services come in both military and civilian flavors, but the Ukraine war has demonstrated that both of them can be used for military purposes. Military drones come with a price tag of anywhere between $100,000 and $10 million, and are effective for their purposes. But at the same time, in many cases you can also use $1,000 consumer drones for many military purposes. So you must calculate whether you can achieve your goals with one $1 million drone or a thouand $1,000 drones.

Wearable devices are one more example of a consumer technology that the military can also utilize. For example, wearables enable commanders to know better the condition of the troops – have they slept enough, how is their stress level and how do they react to different extreme situations? Human beings are still the most important factor in war and they must perform in very difficult situations. If it is possible to better know and predict their capability and reactions, it makes it easier to plan operations.

Now that we have unfortunately are reached a situation where many countries are more concerned about their security and are investing more in military resources and technology, dual-use technology is going to have an important role in this. It pushes many technology companies to think of new innovative ways to develop dual-use technology. There will also be many new innovations and startups in this area. Many parties will see opportunities in the military business, but they’ll likely find it too expensive, complex and risky to develop purely military technology. For them, dual-use technology is a sweet spot.

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