The public-private partnership of war

| October 19, 2022

Technology mogul Elon Musk hasn’t won himself many new fans in the national security community over the past fortnight with his suggestions about pathways forward on Ukraine and Taiwan. He would do well to stay out of peace negotiations on Twitter and stick to his brilliance at engineering and entrepreneurialism.

Musk has, however, secured a hardcore fan base among Ukrainian and American military planners who are relying heavily on his Starlink satellite network. (Over the past weekend, however, he caused both confusion and consternation by initially suggesting that Starlink couldn’t continue to fund satellite technology for Ukraine, only then to issue an apparent backflip—albeit in sarcastic tones. Recent reports indicate that Starlink is talking to the Pentagon about funding.)

Starlink satellites are providing reliable, high-speed internet to Ukraine, helped by the US Agency for International Development. The technology is enabling Ukraine’s leaders to win the information war and its troops to communicate and target Russian enemy forces.

One Ukrainian commander told The Economist last week: ‘Starlink is our oxygen. You can’t just turn it off. If we tell Musk [to] piss off and take his Starlinks with him, our army would collapse into chaos.’ And Dave Tremper, a top Pentagon electronic warfare official, has said the way Starlink fended off Russian cyberattacks was ‘eye-watering to me’.

There are plenty of ongoing lessons from the Ukraine war. But one issue not receiving anywhere near enough focus is the role of the private sector. Ukraine should be prompting a deep look at how governments and the private sector work together to enhance Western countries’ operational capability—not just after a conflict begins, but importantly over the long term to underpin the credibility and effectiveness of deterrence.

Our strategic rivals and potential adversaries should know that any aggressive actions will be met not just with the might of our militaries—or materiel support provided by them—but also by our technological and industry power, with all their commercial clout and entrepreneurship.

If there’s any doubt about the importance and urgency of this conversation, consider the fact that technological competition is at the centre of the strategic rivalry between the United States and China.

Beijing is putting enormous effort into technological predominance—including through its military–civil fusion strategy that aligns government, defence, industry and civil society—while the clock ticks on its ambition to integrate Taiwan into the mainland (forcibly if needed), which would likely spark direct military confrontation with the US.

The West will need to compete with a Chinese state that is considerably stronger than Vladimir Putin’s Russia and which has securitised its entire industry sector. An effective and responsible combination of private sector and government capabilities must be brought to bear to deter conflict and, if required, win in modern war.

There has been an understandable tendency in the past to question the private sector’s involvement in conflict—not helped by the conduct of some private contractors in the Middle East since 2003 and the exorbitant costs of major weapons programs led by prime defence firms. There is a natural hesitance about the very idea of commercial profit from conflict and mercenary behaviour.

But there are good answers these days to this objection, not least that in an age in which connectivity and communication are everything, no country can afford to ignore the decisive role of commercial cyber, space and other technology providers.

Musk’s capricious messaging in recent days only reinforces the benefits of deliberate planning with commercial actors. And it’s not just Starlink. Palantir is providing a unique and secure software backbone to the Ukrainian government. Maxar and Planet Labs are supporting Ukraine with commercial satellite imagery.

Google has used its platform to enable alerts to UN resources for humanitarian purposes. Meta has blocked Russian state media in Europe and fact-checks content on the conflict on its platform, and Microsoft has blocked Russian propaganda is helping detect and advise on cyberattacks.

Preserving the benefits of free-market enterprise and useful separation of the state and private sectors should be central in our strategy. We do not want to integrate our private sector into the state in a way that replicates Beijing’s and Moscow’s models, suffocates innovation and entrepreneurship, and stifles leadership and creativity.

But we do need a whole-of-society enterprise. Governments need to encourage the private sector to work in closer alignment with state policies that aim to protect individual, social, economic and national security, as patriotic firms did in previous eras to great benefit.

Business decisions should be made with geopolitics, international security and human rights firmly in mind, even if this comes at a short-term cost to firms’ bottom lines. The long-term benefit of companies making strategic choices about where and how they do business should be clear. In fact, companies such as Palantir have demonstrated that taking a principled approach to their business model can be a great driver of success and profit, and a useful market differentiator.

To deter most effectively, it must be clear that open, democratic nations are pursuing responsible and accountable use of technology, that major corporations and technology leaders are aligned with that approach, and that our adversaries would therefore be pitting themselves not just against the technologies themselves, but against institutionalised values that are anathema to the malign intents they might pursue.

Those who remain worried about the idea of increasing private-sector partnerships in national security should understand that a key part of this approach would be to instil principles into agreed rules on technology—values such as transparency, human rights and privacy protections.

Consider the retention and use of genetic data by governments. Open societies transparently regulate how it is stored, protected and used. In authoritarian societies, this data feeds artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms to provide population-control mechanisms.

For these partnerships to be most effective, they will need to operate across coalitions of likeminded countries. Many of the key private-sector players are already global, or would benefit from global connectivity if they are not.

It makes sense for them to work closely not just with the government of the nation in which they are headquartered, but with that nation’s allies and partners as well. As far as incentives go, opening markets across borders must be a key part of the approach. It works for business, it works for deterrence, and it helps shore up consensus on underlying principles, rules and norms.

Space and cyber are two immediate areas in which liberal governments can leverage existing technical superiority. Space launch and AI-enabled software development platforms both have histories of highly secretive, government-led development. Yet in both cases, the commercial sector has flipped the old paradigm and is now delivering continuously innovating capabilities faster, more cheaply and at a greater scale than almost any government.

The United States’ convening power, innovation and ability to set standards make it indispensable in progressing these conversations. Its partners—government and commercial—will need to consider their roles and potential investments under a common framework driven both by interests and values.

They should all be thinking now about what they can contribute, and how they benefit, from a strengthened consensus on the use of technology for collective good. The deterrence benefits and the options for crisis response will follow.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a brutal reminder that major war is not a thing of the past. And if we have a challenge in Russia, the problems presented by China are far more complex, more advanced and less well-understood. The commercial sector has proven it is a player that must be brought into governments’ strategy and planning as we face the difficult period ahead.

This article was published by The Strategist. A version of this article appeared in The Australian.