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War has spread to a sixth domain: the private sector

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Ever since the first recorded battle in the 15th century BC at Megiddo, where Pharaoh Thutmose III’s forces crushed the rebellious Canaanites (and gave rise to the term Armageddon), our species has been steadily, and depressingly, expanding the domains in which we kill each other. 

The chariot-borne ancient Egyptians defeated their enemies on land. But conflict later spread to the sea and in more recent times to the air. Nato doctrine now recognises five domains of warfare, including space and cyber space. The Russian assault on Ukraine, ranging from a land invasion to a cyber attack on the Viasat satellite network, has spanned all five.

But one military commentator argues that the experience of Ukraine suggests warfare now extends to a sixth domain: the private sector. It has certainly been striking to see the vital role that Ukrainian start-ups and big US tech firms, such as Microsoft, Palantir and Starlink, have played in resisting Russian aggression. Whether it has been repurposing civilian drones to drop bombs, securing sensitive government data on the cloud, using machine-learning systems to process battlefield data or providing satellite communications to frontline troops, private sector companies have been central to Ukraine’s defence. 

Such is their importance that these spheres of activity should now be formally considered a sixth domain and included “as part of the warfighting constructs, plans, preparations, and actions if the United States and its allies are to prevail in future conflicts”, writes Franklin Kramer in a recent paper for the Atlantic Council. 

The war in Ukraine has been a “watershed in many ways”, Kramer tells me, highlighting the need for war planners and private companies to collaborate before any conflict erupts and figure out appropriate ways to pay for national security-related work. Both have an acute interest in protecting critical industrial, energy, and financial infrastructure, satellite communications, information systems and undersea cables — the arteries of a modern economy that are mostly run by the private sector. “Resilience is extremely important and making resilience operational will require the engagement of the private sector,” Kramer says.

Many will question whether the private sector should count as a separate sphere of military activity given it has long infused all the other five domains. For as long as there has been a private sector, it has been central to the ability of nation states to wage war. Many companies would also be alarmed, if not disgusted, to be considered part of any country’s military-industrial complex. The environmental, social and corporate governance lobby has been pressing investors to pull out of defence-related companies. And the employees of some tech companies, including Google, have themselves rebelled against involvement in some military projects, such as the Pentagon’s Project Maven.

There is also a danger that by formally including private companies in war planning, potential adversaries will regard them as hostile entities, harming their commercial interests. Last year, Moscow designated Meta, which runs Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, as a “terrorist and extremist” organisation and this month added one of the company’s spokesmen to its wanted list. 

In spite of these misgivings, there is an overwhelming logic for the private sector to engage more closely with national security priorities within the Nato bloc. The war in Ukraine has transformed attitudes, in Europe in particular. Faced with a revanchist Russia, defence has re-emerged as a democratic imperative. Once-neutral Finland has joined Nato and soon Sweden will do so, too. Atomico’s 2023 State of European Tech report, published this week, found that European start-up founders and investors were more concerned about geopolitical risks than any other issue apart from access to capital. 

To deepen ties with the private sector, Nato has launched a €1bn Europe-focused innovation fund to act as a “commercialisation machine” for promising civilian technologies with military applications. “People understand that if you cannot defend yourself then no contract is worth anything. The S in ESG needs to also stand for security,” Klaus Hommels, chair of the Nato fund, tells me. “Suddenly people are launching start-ups in this area and they are getting financed. Four years ago there was no will or interest.” 

The shifting nature of conflict in our digital world means that even if you want to stay away from the frontline, the frontline may find you. Far better to prepare for that cold reality than retreat into the more comforting, but delusional, world of yesteryear.

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