Some thoughts at the 2015 EASO seminar in Brunei.

I’m in Brunei today for the 7th annual East Asia Security Outlook (EASO) seminar, held for the Ministry of Defense by the Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Defense and Security Studies. To close the day, I was asked to deliver a talk applying our work at the Atlantic Council to the context—what do disruptive military technologies mean for small states? Or specifically, for a sultanate of half a million people on the edge of the South China Sea? How does a small state manage the threat of new technologies when they’re a threat, assimilate their potential when they might contribute to its security, and develop new ones when that’s right for the strategic situation?

Start with that certain commonality in the security situation of most Southeast Asian countries. Throughout the Western Pacific, most deal with formidable distances, inaccessible hinterlands, increasingly urbanized populations, and I believe in the long-run, secularly strong economic growth. The international disputes are mostly maritime, and at least until recently, the quotidian concern was extremist terrorism. Of course there is cyber, which we might fear even the people doing it don’t really understand, and which thus makes most of us nervous in some way.

With these demands on security forces, the technologies of interest include some usual suspects. What matters over long distances, with challenging logistics, but informaticized populations and forces? These factors are what keep us thinking about the potential of additive manufacturing, cyber (naturally), autonomous systems, and weapons that don’t actually require expensive ammunition, like lasers and rail guns. What differs across East Asia, though, is the relatively differing capacities of the various states to make use of emerging technologies. Brunei is an advanced and wealthy state with efficient armed forces, but only half a million people. As anywhere, there is only so much money. Here also, there is relatively little domestic industry relevant to introducing new technologies—at least not yet. Financial resources, industrial capacity, and systems integration capabilities—three of the most important factors in mastering new military technologies—are hard to raise or develop in the short run, though the government aims to change that in the long run.

The question of size adds another other point, stirring either concern or imagination. What Mat Burrows of the Atlantic Council has called the “hacker era” holds promise for, as the French did wish with nuclear weapons, les faibles contre les forts. If a guy like Edward Snowden or a handful of hackers in Shanghai can cause so much trouble, it’s worth asking what anyone’s handful can do in return, when armed with the very possibly disruptive tools of technologies of what we have called “democratized destruction”.

Thus I did offer two suggestions for when resources are modest. The first is prototyping built atop existing systems. At the dinner preceding the event, I mentioned my admiration for what the defense industries and military forces in Denmark and Sweden have managed to do with small units of advanced technologies meant for their uniquely Nordic and international circumstances. We have seen some very impressive naval vessels, submersibles, combat aircraft, artillery, armored vehicles, and communications systems come out of some comparatively small countries. One of the secrets there is not reinventing the wheel. By that, I mean extending the capabilities of existing systems by focusing development money and engineering hours only on the subsystems that really matter, and in which the global industry, for whatever reason, is not so responsive. That could be a new form of ammunition for an old gun, a new hull design around old naval weapons, or just novel software for communications systems, perhaps that derives from commercial technology.

In the long run, there may be huge promise in additive manufacturing, at least for modest units of small systems, as a means of production that does not require expensive touch labor or tooling setups. This may hold great promise for forces that must cover great distances with small staffs, and it’s an area of technological development we should all watch carefully.

But another concept—and for the short run—that I find under-appreciated throughout much of the world is field experimentation. The US and Japanese Navies didn’t master aircraft carrier operations in the 1930s by building the perfect ships with the ideal aircraft. Actually, in keeping with the predicted pattern of disruptive innovation, those first carriers and planes were pretty flimsy. But a decade of operating them before the war made their later battles across the Pacific impressive affairs. Today, the only area of conflict in which forces exercise hard every day is cyber—though they do every day. The US and Australia have formal “opposing forces”, or OpFors, that train their troops, but otherwise field experimentation is a semi-lost art. Here at the Council, Ian Brzezinski has spoken of an “exercise gap” between NATO and Russia—the latter, in some ways, drill much more aggressively than NATO’s European states, and we should worry just how good the Russians are getting at some of their latest Little Green Techniques. In contrast, no matter how large or wealthy the state, thinking is free. Just trying stuff, and discussing it, and writing about it, doesn’t often require large outlays of funds, but can mean the difference between master a new technology, and getting mastered by the other guy who’s using it.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.