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02 May 2024

Explainer: Emerging Disruptive Technologies in Defence

Explainer: Emerging Disruptive Technologies in Defence

At a crucial time for defence, we unveil our first five EDT focus areas of 2024: AI, Drones, Novel Space Technologies, Quantum Technologies, and Advanced Materials.

Emerging Disruptive Technologies (EDTs)

EDTs change the way things are done and challenge the value of traditional platforms.  In defence, they can disrupt the normal flow of warfare, seeking to deny opponents of their capabilities, better protect allied personnel and infrastructure, and in an era where dual-use solutions are crucial, provide significant economic benefits.

There is no single list of EDTs which can claim to be entirely comprehensive, but in this piece, we will explore five of the most topical:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Drones
  • Novel Space Technologies
  • Quantum Technologies
  • Advanced Materials

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Source: Markets and Markets

‘It [AI] offers an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen our technological edge but will also escalate the speed of the threats we face’, NATO AI Strategy.

Following the release of Chat-GPT in November 2022, AI continues to create a buzz as potential applications are explored for individuals, organisations, and governments. Commercial market has jumped on AI and making a difference, with it set to revolutionise an array of capabilities in defence, including the management of battlefield data, increasing the autonomy of assets, and enhancing the detection speeds of incoming threats.

At IT2EC 2024, Jack McGuinness - Programme Lead Pan Defence Skills Framework, UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), said “the private sector can use AI to help Government make problems smaller and more manageable”. Mr McGuiness went on to explain how an expensive MOD skills initiative, which had been attempted multiple times, is seemingly being solved by a $600 investment in Chat-GPT.


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Drone Market
Source: Precedence Research

Remote and autonomous systems, commonly referred to as ‘drones’, can be grouped into several categories, including: UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles), UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft), and RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System).

In military operations, drones excel at gathering information through surveillance, with some being able to use that information to carry out attacks. Increased speed, reduced weight, and greater payloads are strengthening the lethality of drones. Whilst developments in command and control, such as swarm coordination using AI, are changing the very dynamics of warfare.

With commercial unit costs falling considerably, there has been a significant increase in the types and uses of drones. Ukraine is taking advantage of this opportunity and has been widely reported to be re-engineering and adapting off-the-shelf models. Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi stated earlier this year that drones are crucial to securing a “qualitative advantage over a numerically superior opponent".


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Novel Space Technologies

Space Technology
Source: Precedence Research

As the cost of putting satellites in space continues to fall, the atmosphere has become congested with both commercial and military hardware. Besides the standard GPS, communications, and intelligence applications of space assets, there is a need for technologies to help track and defend them. Deterring threats in space, will be crucial for maintaining a strategic advantage.

“Space underpins vital, battle-winning technologies...”, helping us to “deliver global command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, precision navigation”, Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP - Former Secretary of State for Defence, Defence Space Strategy: Operationalising the Space Domain (2022).

Major trends driving change for militaries in space include the evolution of cyber and Electronic Warfare systems, nuclear and solar power, orbital sustainment, and deepening public-private and international collaborations.


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Quantum Technologies

Quantum Technology
Source: Zion Market Research

Quantum technologies have potential to impact our security. From advanced sensors to immense leaps in computing power, and even next level encryption/ decryption, quantum will level-up the advantages already being reaped by traditional supercomputers.

'Three applications of quantum technology hold the most promise for the [US] DOD’:

  • Quantum sensors - improvements to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities
  • Quantum computers – exponential speedup over today's computers
  • Quantum communications - secure networks and increased performance.

Quantum technologies are maturing and will continue to develop in coming decades as accelerators and procurement organisations hope to secure a quantum-leap in front-line capability”, Mustafa Rampuri, Director of Enterprise Services at University of Bristol, Director, Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre.


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Advanced Materials

 Advanced Materials
Source: Precedence Research

Whilst opening the UK’s new advanced materials centre of excellence, UK Defence Science Technology Laboratory (Dstl) Chief Executive, Dr Paul Hollinshead, stated that “advanced materials are the building blocks of the future and an area of great international competition”.

Advanced Materials ‘provide numerous benefits including reduced weight, increased mechanical resilience, increased conductivity’. We have seen its potential uses for  aircraft wings that adjust mid-flight, vehicles that blend into any environment, and soldiers with self-repairing armour.


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Watch this space…

Industry’s role in EDT development for defence cannot be understated, with incredible opportunities to advance with cutting-edge technologies.

Other EDTs to keep an eye on include: Big Data Analytics, Advanced Energy and Propulsion Systems, Non-Traditional Training and Simulation Assets, Advanced (including Additive) Manufacturing, Cyber and Electronic Warfare Solutions, Next-Gen Communications, Directed Energy Technology, Semiconductor Technology, Biotechnology and Human Enhancement, and Hypersonics.

All allied nations are involved in emerging technology research and development, whether as individual nations or in their capacity as NATO members, EU members, AUKUS Pillar 2 partners, or GCAP and FCAS allies. This brings opportunities for industry to get involved. These include: laboratory programmes, accelerator units, grant programmes, competitions, or collaborations with institutions and academia. Find resources on how to engage on our Industry FAQs page.


How did we come up with our EDT list?

We looked at some of the most important strategic and industrial initiatives for defence and cross-referenced technologies that most appeared. Check out the sources below…

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