The practice of turning disparate information into battlefield insights is an old one. Military cartography dates back centuries, with data collectors and designers collaborating to create now-famous maps of prominent battles; Robert Adams’ visualisation of the Spanish Armada, published in 1590, is one early example.  

Data continues to aid strategic planning and public understanding of conflict. But the sheer amount of data pumping out into cyberspace, ease of access and the imperative to process it in real time is asking new questions of defence planners. According to GlobalData estimates, the worldwide stock of digital data expanded at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26% between 2017 and 2022. Mobile traffic accounted for just 9% of all internet traffic at the start of the same period – an amount that is expected to more than double by its end. Meanwhile falling costs of cloud computing are making it easier for technically savvy actors – good and bad – to weaponise data.  

Governments are racing to get ahead of the trend. In 2017, the European Defence Agency’s ‘Big Data in Defence Modelling and Simulation’ study – “BIDADEMS” – recommended member states focus on the potential of technologies like cloud computing, non-relational databases and data analytics to exploit big data’s “high potential for defence modelling and simulation.” In “Defence in a Competitive Age,” the 2021 command paper from the UK Defence Ministry, the ability to “share and exploit” data was described as “fundamental to delivering multi-domain integration and information advantage.” Data is evolving from a way of understanding battlefield frontiers to a frontier in itself. 

The situation today 

Conflict in Ukraine has created new conversations around the role of data on battlefields. Medieval maps took state-backed experts years to update and verify. Today, dozens of start-up organisations automatically rake in data from hundreds of free, open sources. At the press of a button, this can be turned into live updates on battle lines and troop movements.  

High-resolution satellite imagery from Maxar, for example, is being used to track tank convoys. Data collectors are alerted to new skirmishes via videos published on TikTok. Local government agencies post news on Facebook and Twitter instead of via official media outlets. And in addition to illuminating the conflict for foreign observers, the data free-for-all is helping to turn its tide. Ukrainian intelligence receives tens of thousands of reports per day on Russian troop whereabouts from ordinary citizens; they can provide location-tagged photos directly from their smartphones via an app developed at the outbreak of war. 

It points to the rise of the grey zone – where state and non-state actors, while technically not at war, compete for strategic dominance – and the role of data in navigating it. For example, harnessing vast quantities of data from commercial satellites and top secret intelligence helped Ukraine’s army pre-empt enemy sorties before conflict had even broken out. This expansion of wargaming into space and cyberspace – in addition to the traditional domains of land, sea and air – is the hallmark of grey zone warfare. Winning across these new domains necessitates incorporation of new technologies to bring different military branches together. Data plays an essential role. 

What strategists are doing – and still need to do 

Prussian military general and theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed that war’s nature does not change, only its character. But with this changing character must come new military processes. Strategies will have to be reformulated from scratch, placing open source data on a par with government intelligence to deliver effective strikes. Wherever they begin their military careers, personnel will have to acclimatise to operating across multiple domains of warfare as information wars rage alongside physical ones. 

Developing these strategies, promoting these personnel and ensuring they are using data effectively is easier said than done. “Some people say data is the new oil,” said Lt. Gen. John N. T. Shanahan, then-Director of America’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre, in a 2019 interview. “I don’t like that. I treat it as a mineral ore: there’s a lot of crap. You have to filter out the impurities from the raw materials to get the gold nuggets.” Rationalising reams of data is hard enough. Leveraging it to create operational advantages requires time-consuming investment and planning – time that allies may not have as great power conflict becomes increasingly tangible. 

This is why public-private partnerships are becoming essential. A remote group of islands in the Pacific Ocean houses the U.S. Air Force’s missile test sites, evaluating successful and failed launches. Missile flight details are recorded by a network of sensors managed by Leidos. These sensors produce masses of highly specific information on aerospace flights; additional sensors provide photographic data and pinpoint blast locations. If a country puts something into space – be it junk or a warhead – Leidos operators track it, crunch the numbers and pass their findings on to American officials. It embodies the growth of private expertise helping public bodies navigate the grey zone, analysing anomalies in data to ensure they pose no threat.  

For data to be usable, it needs to be connected and capable of being deployed swiftly. Collaborations with private providers can help here too. The Sentinel award, a $1.5bn task order assigned to Leidos by the US Department of Defence, is one recent example. “In today’s battlefield, the command who has actionable multi and cross domain data fastest is the one with the high ground,” said Gerry Fasano, Leidos Defence Group president. Through the new contract, the US military will utilise Leidos’ expertise to do just this. The company’s Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C5ISR) capabilities will ramp up deployment of new technologies across the mission spectrum. Thanks to Leidos’ expert data science and engineering abilities, innovations will be integrated across complex networks rapidly and globally. Meanwhile, military strategists will be free to rehearse their responses to real and developing threats knowing they have an expert partner providing robust technological support.   

Threats from state and non-state actors abound; gathering, deploying and protecting data will only become more important. In a world where hackers can wreak the same havoc as bombs and machine learning can avert hazards as capably as missile defence systems, strategies need to adapt. Data will become their lifeblood. For the good actors, choosing the right partners will be crucial in the battle to stay one step ahead of the bad. 

For further insights from Leidos on deploying and defending sensitive data, its centrality in multi-domain integration and why stronger relationships between industry and militaries will be essential for future defence strategies, click here