What are the threats to international society?

We can discuss this subject from various points of view. If we focus on the balance of power among countries, then the growth in national power of one country may be viewed as a threat to another country, or to the existing international order. Equally, the specter of terrorism, or that of nonstate violence more generally, may be viewed as a persistent threat.

The “threat” I would like to highlight here, however, is of a more conceptual, yet equally crucial, nature. This threat is the “uncertainty of future warfare” — and it poses an ongoing challenge for defense authorities and the defense industry.

It goes without saying that the acceleration of technological innovation has a significant impact on warfare, as we see faster technological advancement than ever, especially in the private sector; however, such advancement does not represent the only means to conduct strategic deterrence or achieve victory on the battlefield. What is important is how such technology is developed into defense equipment, how it informs the development of strategy and concepts of operation, and how it is used in battle.

Looking back upon history, the introduction of vehicles or aircraft did not alone change warfare; rather, it was the ideas as to how to best use the constituent technology, tactically and strategically, which drastically changed warfare or the strategic environment.

As technologies rapidly advance in various fields, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and quantum technology, and in view of their immense potential application across a range of military functions, the future of warfare is becoming increasingly uncertain.

There is at present an intense “competition over ideas” regarding how those technologies might be used for defense equipment, tactics and strategies; that is, states are now planning and testing which technologies can be used, and in what kinds of ways, to surprise adversaries and become a gamechanger on the battlefield.

There are two things I expect from the defense industry as well as the private sector and research institutions, the latter of which may have developed promising technologies but have not yet entered into the defense business.

The first thing is outside-of-the-box thinking and the capacity for offering unique and creative proposals to, and engaging in dialogue with, defense authorities. The Japanese Ministry of Defense has advanced its efforts to capitalize on research into advanced technologies, undertaking the necessary organizational buildup measures, and identifying small and medium-sized enterprises with promising technologies.

However, in order to win the above-mentioned “competition over ideas” and gain an advantage in future warfare, it is necessary for the MoD, as is the case among defense authorities elsewhere, to be more proactive in using the free and flexible ideas from within the private sector.

Improvements to traditional equipment are meaningful. But what might largely decide the future of combat is conceiving and developing innovative tactics through the application of new technologies, or existing technologies with newly devised improvements, for new equipment.

I believe companies that embrace such innovation will establish a significant presence in the defense industry of the future. Just as tech giants succeeded in achieving a significant presence in the global market pursuant to the development of information communications technology, it will not be surprising if private companies that are currently doing no defense business were to take a lead in the defense industry in the next 20 or 30 years.

In this respect, the existing defense industry is facing unprecedented challenges and transformation. Against this backdrop, defense authorities must be conscious of countries whose possession of certain technologies is undesirable, or of companies with close ties to such countries that are making technological breakthroughs.

The second thing is that companies and research institutions in likeminded countries, regardless of differences in nationality, should explore the possibilities new equipment and operating concepts might provide through flexible dialogue, and demonstrate a willingness to bring together their technological strengths and ideas, including those from the private sector.

Needless to say, dialogue must be undertaken in a manner that does not interfere with each country’s export control regulations. The joint development of defense equipment among international consortia, based on government leadership and clearly defined performance requirements, is still important for the future. But as a first step, I expect that free and flexible discussions — and a survey of future possibilities by companies and private research institutions from different backgrounds and strategic cultures — will facilitate a breakthrough in ideas well before the actual development phase.

I am confident that Japan and likeminded countries will have advantages in the “competition over ideas” because we are open to free and vigorous discussion and possess free, democratic and pluralistic values. Now that technological advancements have the capacity to drastically redefine the very nature of security amid ongoing changes in the balance of power and instability in the international order, we must exploit ideas and insights from both the public and private sectors in Japan and among likeminded countries to maintain the advantage in future warfare.

Nobuo Kishi is Japan’s defense minister.

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