What can the military learn from uberisation and the gig economy?

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In his book A History of Warfare, John Keegan wrote of the relationship between warfare and society: “both worlds change over time, and the warrior world adapts in step to the civilian. It follows it, however, at a distance. The distance can never be closed, for the culture of the warrior can never be that of civilisation itself.”  

Popularly understood in terms of the ‘sharing’ or ‘gig’ economy, the phenomenon known as ‘uberisation’ reflects the radical disruption of resource allocation infrastructure by autonomous information systems – arguably the ‘real’ robotics revolution. Supply-chain management, logistics, warehousing, transport, distribution, manufacturing, and analytical services are all being uberised along with the more familiar consumer facing services. The pandemic crisis has accelerated these processes

The essence of uberisation is speed. The capacity to sense and predict demand, and assemble and deliver supply, has been revolutionised by the surveillance economy. In turn, industry increasingly finds incumbent resource allocation infrastructures to be impediments to competitive business. As companies, Uber and their like are test cases- they continue to face multiple hurdles, from regulatory intervention to industry and even societal backlash. The Covid-19 pandemic raises questions anew about core aspects of the business model, particularly the insecurity of workers who remain contractors and not employees. But it has also revealed how central a cog in the urban infrastructure the hyper-lightweight economy has become.

Close watchers of military affairs over the past three decades will have noticed the analogies. Business and war may never merge, but they have always traded notes. Uberisation is essentially an accelerated form of Toyota’s just-in-time or ‘lean’ manufacturing model, which swept through economies in the 1980s and 90s. At the same time militaries were shedding mass, connecting ubiquitous digital sensors with long-range precision shooters and developing the operational concepts to put all this ‘flattened’ combat power to work. Network-centric warfare evolved into effects-based operations, while strategic level thinking explored what shape a digital age military should really take. 

While that debate continued with little consensus reached, the strategic ground did not stay put. Amidst rhetoric about the return of great power competition, the discussion about how best to leverage information for effects in warfare has quickly become more about surviving a cognitive battle. Even industry stalwarts such as RAND have weighed into the emerging discourse, on what they label ‘virtual societal warfare’ and its capacity to undermine the very terms and conditions in which nations contend. With the heightened risk of US-China tensions spilling over into armed conflict in the Western Pacific, a traditional analysis might have anticipated signs of a heavy footprint military presence returning. 

That may yet materialise, but for now signs point in other directions. The recent cessation of the US’ Continuous Bomber Presence in Guam does not itself constitute a trend, but additional evidence suggests something akin to the uberisation of national security may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. 

Outsource, dematerialise, de-territorialise

Private military contracting and the return of a quasi-mercenary force, which supplements and, in some cases, dwarfs the professional military footprint, has been an increasingly  common sight in the Middle East region over the past two decades. The presence of large numbers of military combat personnel has given way to nimble, small teams of Special Operations Forces, often performing highly specialised tasks, combining with tailored local forces cultivated prior and in situ, and capable of assembling and disassembling rapidly. These units rely on and are supported by sophisticated, real-time, networked ISR which is global in reach and in which data-hungry artificial intelligence plays an increasingly pivotal filtering and cueing role. Partly a reflection of the life-cycle of these particular conflicts, this is also a glimpse of the just-in-time warfare for the digital age military thinkers were conceiving during the 1990s.          

Beyond ground forces, armies of anonymous civilian cyberwarriors, garrisoning the frontlines of the nation’s digital territory, have been flagged as near-term necessities in the cyber domain. In a not dissimilar vein, the UK’s Active Cyber Defence framework, which aims to raise the cost and lower the benefit of a range of low level mass attacks across the UK government’s networks, has been sited as a potential model for an Australian Civilian Cyber Corps (AC3). The volunteer AC3 would “allow people working outside government to apply their cyber security skills in the national interest on a part time, auxiliary basis.” 

The mighty US Navy would seem an unlikely candidate for uberisation, but recent commentary suggests otherwise. Struggling for a solution to combat Chinese below-the-threshold operations at sea, but also in reference to wartime, two articles in the April volume of Proceedings (here and here) argue for a return to privateering. This is where the US government issues letters of marque to private citizens to capture or destroy enemy shipping. “Privateering constitutes a once universally accepted but now thoroughly unconventional way of harnessing the private sector in war.” In the case of the US Air Force, it’s estimated no less than 85% of pilots will fly UAVs by 2022. These skills are highly mobile and among the most prime candidates for on-demand automation.  

All of the examples above express trends prefigured in civilian industries that were rapidly uberised. This is as we stand on the cusp of the widespread deployment of autonomy and robotics across the services, which will only add further weight to the perception by policy-makers that enterprise-wide economic and operational efficiencies could be achieved via uberisation.    

Any attempt, in any domain (indeed cross-domain) to augment the state’s professional military capabilities by harnessing on-demand civilian, irregular, unconventional and robotic autonomous forces in the digital age will be network-centric and data-driven. It will be an attempt to leverage the speed of autonomous digital information networks to supply accelerating military demand, which by necessity will need to side-step incumbent resource allocation infrastructure. This would be akin to uberising military affairs. 

But the business of war is not synonymous with any other type of business. As the late strategist Colin S. Gray writes in The Future of Strategy, “It is obvious that more often than not the strategic effect required by policy is physical evidence of map-locatable political control on the ground.” In other words, a monopoly on violence that stays put. There is something paradoxical here when it comes to trends in network-driven efficiency, which by definition subordinate the power of presence, and Gray’s axiom about strategic effect. Uberisation won’t close the gap that Keegan noted. But it could yet radically disrupt the business of war.      

About the Author: Dr Zac Rogers PhD is Research Lead at the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University of South Australia. His research combines a traditional grounding in national security, intelligence, and defence with emerging fields of social cybersecurity, digital anthropology, and democratic resilience. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn

Cover Image Credit: LSIS Richard Cordell, Defence Image Gallery