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Societal Attitudes on Defence Spending and Investment Need to Change

In the face of new state security threats, society needs to be more willing to accept the role of the defence sector.

Preparing for the worst: a British Army Archer howitzer fires a 155mm round during a training exercise in Sweden

Weapons maim. Weapons kill. They do not distinguish between children and combatants. However uncomfortable, we need to have a national conversation about producing them and financing them.

There is only one option if we are to avoid war, and that is to prepare for it.

Calls for conscription, as the UK’s most senior army officer, General Sir Patrick Sanders promoted in February, are a distraction, especially in countries such as the UK and Germany which do not share a border with Russia. That heightened sense of danger exists in Finland, which received a wave of Yemeni and Syrian refugees in recent years, courtesy of Russia’s actions. Or consider the Baltic states: in January they agreed to build defensive installations on their borders with Russia and Belarus.

For those countries bordering Russia, there are lessons to learn from Sweden, NATO’s newest member. The invasion of Ukraine was what finally pushed the country – its maritime border with Russia subject to regular submarine incursions – to abandon almost 200 years of neutrality and officially join the Alliance. This was not done through a referendum, but a parliamentary vote. As a top Swedish foreign affairs official said at the time in a private conversation, this ensured there was less opportunity for the enemy to launch a major disinformation campaign aimed at polarising the country.

Clear political leadership is an important component in changing the national conversation. France’s President Emmanuel Macron is becoming more combative, abandoning France’s historically more equivocal position towards Russia. The same is true of Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister. Spain’s Pedro Sanchez has taken a different stance: he asked EU leaders to avoid using the word ‘war’ in their summit declarations as people felt threatened.

A sense of threat is exactly what is needed. Governments must reveal more of the ‘liminal’ warfare – operations that are difficult to attribute and often non-violent – to their populations. It is no coincidence that, on the same day in March, the US and the UK publicly revealed a series of ‘prolific’ cyber attacks by Beijing over the past few years.

Reaching out to the civilian population at large is another strategy. The South by Southwest film, music and tech festival, which gathers technologists and creatives and takes place in March in Austin, Texas, this year counted the US Army and Collins Aerospace as sponsors. Demonstrations and a boycott by a handful of artists did not stop the festival going ahead with a massive turnout.

Calls for conscription are a distraction, especially in countries such as the UK and Germany which do not share a border with Russia

An education campaign is necessary within the Deep Tech community – a Silicon Valley entrepreneur pointed out that managers above a certain age did not see an issue with working on military technology, while younger employees brought up in the relatively peaceful era after the fall of the Berlin Wall were opposed.

The first steps have been taken. Venture capital investment into defence technology doubled to $33 billion in the five years to 2023. And organisations such as Mission Link in the US bring together the defence establishment and tech start-ups in a bid to ensure the slow-moving bureaucracy and big-company favouritism of government procurement can be side-stepped.

Worth noting is that Katrina Mulligan, former chief of staff to the secretary of the US Army, was hired by OpenAI this February. The Chat-GPT maker in January altered its usage policies to allow ‘military and warfare’ applications. Again, the protests that arose on the back of the change ultimately petered out.

A change of mentality is also needed in the investor community. Other than private sector funds specialising in defence or government entities such as the UK’s National Security Strategic Investment Fund, institutional investors face the conundrum of ESG (environmental, social and governance) categorisation. It is ludicrous that defence is classified alongside pornography and tobacco as a no-go area, but changing the criteria would be a public relations disaster for individual firms, noted a Scandinavian fund manager who advises on ethics in a private conversation.

Hence moves to amend OECD guidelines, for instance, or the capacity of EU institutions to buy weapons using its shared budget, are a step in the right direction. Deeper pools of capital are necessary: NATO’s European members face a shortfall of €56 billion a year to meet the Alliance’s defence spending target, which at 2% of GDP is, in any case, arguably too low for a threatening new era.

William Burns, director of the CIA, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs that: ‘Success will depend on blending traditional human intelligence with emerging technologies’.

To achieve this, governments, academia and companies need to work on a civilian acceptance of a significant increase in the manufacture and funding of arms production, both offensive, defensive and dual use, through public campaigns and national conversations. Without civil society’s agreement, current funding will not suffice to modernise the military capability of the West enough to, at the very least, deter attacks.

Governments, academia and companies need to work on a civilian acceptance of a significant increase in the manufacture and funding of arms production

The narrative needs to be altered. The Apollo space programme of the 1960s and 70s, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US military’s technology innovator, have markedly contributed to society – from autonomous cars to the internet. Ultimately, virtually all technology is dual use, from drones to lasers to robots.

Initiatives such as Hacking for the Ministry of Defence (H4MoD), which originated at Stanford University, encourages university students to develop innovative ideas in response to real-world defence problems.

It is not an impossible feat. Ideas that were taboo are now mainstream, whether in defence – such as Sweden joining NATO – or for other social issues, such as society’s acceptance of mental health or the right of women to vote.

‘I want my kids to live in an open society’, says Scott Faris, a successful entrepreneur who felt the call to return to lead Infleqtion, a quantum and AI firm that works with the UK’s defence technology company QuinetiQ and DARPA in the US, and just moved on to lead Equlipse Quantum.

When North Korea has the capacity to knock a satellite out of the sky, hostile countries can buy lethal equipment on the web, and Russian President Vladimir Putin credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons as a response to the West’s support of Ukraine, Polish leader Donald Tusk’s words sound less alarmist and increasingly true:

‘I know it sounds devastating, especially to people of the younger generation, but we have to mentally get used to the arrival of a new era. The pre-war era’.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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