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Writing for Defence Online, Helen Dudfield, Chief Scientist for Training and Human Performance at QinetiQ, examines how governments can prepare their military forces and their personnel for the shifting challenges emerging from the grey zone.

It is becoming increasingly clear what skills and knowledge the students of today should pursue to ensure their employability in the future. The digital revolution has overpowered the choice there may have been decades ago and replaced it with a clear demand for technology skills.

This is evidenced by LinkedIn’s data on the most in demand skills of 2020 – the top five including blockchain, cloud computing, analytical reasoning, artificial intelligence and UX design. Fortunately for students, the democratisation of technology itself, means more young people have access to the technologies they need to develop these skills although recent remote learning in the pandemic evidences continuing inequity.

For those in defence, the democratisation of technology has had another impact – being a key contributor to the growth in grey zone warfare. A battleground in which weapons of warfare are not the conventional rifle or tank, but rather non-unique computers which through expert enable bad actors the ability to inflict damage on their targets.

Potential enemies are increasingly harder to identify as those with access to a computer, or an off-the-shelf drone are capable of causing as significant damage as conventional weaponry, whilst at the same time not provoking a conventional response, or being recognised as a formal act of aggression.

The weaponisation of everyday technologies is leading to a situation where there are no clear lines between the skills applied and tools used by those within and outside the military, with acts often combining both. The lack of distinction between what is a military skill and what isn’t presents a major challenge to the defence sector.

A change in mindset

Introducing those with relevant skills and knowledge firstly requires a change in the recruitment process. Approaching those who fit the traditional military hire is no longer enough to address new forms of attack like cyber warfare. The net must be cast further, to court the digitally native generation who may not see the defence sector as the natural home for their skillset. Secondly, recruiters must illustrate to potential talent why a job in the defence sector is a worthwhile career choice, as they will be competing directly with the rise of Fintechs, the promise of tech start-ups and the huge salaries on offer within the banking sector. However, the tech talent pool in the UK may not be ready to service the demand. Research from recruitment firm Robert Walters Group found that the pandemic has put pressure on demands, with 58% of hiring managers putting information security as their most required skill, whilst only 10% of IT professionals have the skills needed to fulfil the roles.

With a small talent pool, focus must also be put on a second approach: targeted investment reskilling current personnel to counter the new threats. This calls for a shift in focus.

Firstly, the linear process of ‘train – deploy – return – train again’ no longer matches the constant nature of grey zone campaigns or the unpredictability of their impact. Training should be a constant process – not a set piece of timed activity. Defence and security forces need to continuously adapt to changes in the environment and incorporate new skills into the way they operate. Critical training should take place during deployment to shorten the timeframe for achieving maximum strategic effect. This is particularly important when force numbers are reduced but strategic effect needs to be maintained.

Secondly, the spread of learning and development tools needs to widen to make the most of novel technologies including mixed reality, AI and autonomy. This is increasingly necessary as defence and security forces will be training across multiple generations and incoming personnel are likely to be more comfortable with new digital ways of learning. It also enables a shift from basic ‘muscle memory’ training to more cognitive training, which in turn enables individuals to shift more easily between traditional fighting skills to those required for effective protection, deterrence, assurance and civil support.

Thirdly, training should be more collaborative. Regular training with allies reinforces the message of how powerful integrated responses can be, and provides a visible deterrent for adversaries no matter what novel tactics they may be exploring for grey zone conflict.

Going forward

The accelerating transfer of consumer technology from lab to user, continues to lower the bar for entry and we are likely to see an increased number of those with the capabilities to act within the grey zone. With such undefined battle grounds, there is no limit to the growth in size the grey zone may enjoy. We are set to see both state and non-state actors becoming increasingly willing to operate within it in order to achieve whatever their aims may be. The defence sector must respond to this shift now and put in the framework to ensure their employees are prepared for the threat. Where possible recruitment will help, but long-term capabilities will be best delivered through a focussed and modernised training program.

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grey zone QinetiQ skills challenge

Post written by: Matt Brown


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