The Colombo Defense seminar the apex seminar organized by the Sri Lanka Army is to be held on 30th and 31 August. This year the seminar will focus on the theme of ‘global disruptions’ and implications on national security. Global disruptions have been the focus on many policy and academic conversations in the 21st Century. The impact global disruptions can have on national security is a very pertinent and timely conversation.
As Sri Lanka is struggling to set up a coherent national security and foreign policy strategy, understanding and responding to the interweaving impacts of global transformation is a must for academic, policy and security establishments to deliberate upon. This article attempts to function as a prelude to the important deliberations that are to take place at the defense seminar and connect it with Sri Lanka’s security interests.
The Colombo defense seminar is taking a four pronged approach to address global disruptions, the key focus will be on demographic shifts, technological transformations, especially cyber and Artificial intelligence (AI) futures, transforming Urban security landscape and the political extremism that is challenging policy makers globally. The seminar is taking place at a time of ongoing political crises, geo political rivalries and political polarization strafing the Sri Lankan body politic.
Sri Lanka’s security narrative
While the above is true, how our security thinking has evolved especially post conflict era needs to be revisited along with seeking answers to how are we shaping our future security strategy? Sri Lanka’s future security discourse is heavily influenced by the evolving maritime competition in the Indo Pacific Ocean. The current administration, especially Prime Minister Wickramasinghe has taken a keen interest to deepen the Ocean security discourse and analyze its impact.
Currently there is an ongoing debate about the role and composition about the future role of the Sri Lanka Army. What is more important apart from the downsizing debate is identifying what role will the Army has to play and what types of challenges it will have to face in defending Sri Lanka’s national security. These may include gearing up for increasing political warfare which is making a comeback in this century.
The concept of political warfare was prominent during the Cold War, where both the Soviet Union and United States used an array of military and nonmilitary interventions in countries from arming militias, changing education systems, values to creating political propaganda to counter the spread of democracy or communism. Post-Cold war era saw a retreat of political warfare.
In the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential election, many American security experts tend to agree that Russia has mastered a new form of political warfare that enables it to intervene in democratic States to change political outcomes of democratic forms of politics such as elections, civil society and press.
American think tanks claim that the United States have actually failed to adapt strategies to contain political warfare in the 21st Century, a strategy Americans were good at when they were intervening in domestic politics of countries using a panoply of weapons of statecraft, during the cold war has returned to haunt them in the 21st Century.
The geo political shocks of the external power struggles will have a serious impact on Sri Lanka’s national security, if political warfare erupts the fall out will be felt heavily on Sri Lanka. Political warfare has the ability to undermine political systems, governance, democracy and increase ethnic tensions, arm radical militias and the splintering can be across multiple fault lines. In Sri Lanka the two key fault lines are ethno-religious and a possible radicalized left. As both these trends have a history in Sri Lanka’s conflict landscape.
Climate Change Challenges
Another key area that global militaries are significantly concerned about are the humanitarian catastrophes of climate change induced climate events and possible weaponization of the climate. Both needs a military that is sensitive and sophisticated enough to comprehend and mitigate the challenges. Climate scientists are arguing we are entering an era of Weathers of Mass Destruction (WMD). Climate change is creating a set of acute challenges accelerating extreme weather events that leads to social and political vulnerabilities and related conflicts.
A classic example is the emerging geo strategic importance and rivalry to dominate the Arctic. America, China, Russia are engaged in a massive military buildup while European powers are looking at increasing there economic gains by using the Artic as a trading route. In a few days a merchant vessel registered to the Danish shipping giant Maersk will use the Northern Arctic sea route. Though commercial shipping in full flow may at least take another decade, a decade back what Maersk is doing right now was unthinkable. This is purely a consequence of climate change and global warming.
The security and strategic challenge for a military is not merely studying climate change, but a military that can arm itself with climate data, especially for a country like ours, which is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. A classic example though not from state sector is the acquisition of Climate Corporation a digital agriculture company that provides farmers with weather, soil and crop yield data by Agricultural behemoth Monsanto five years ago for a Billion dollars.
Climate Corporation was in the possession of 30 years of weather data, 60 years of crop data and unprecedented amount of crop yield and soil data. The power such information puts in the hand of one company is alarming yet that is the way information and data is revolutionizing industry and politics.
The technological disruption is the speed demon of all the modern social and political disruptions. Technological developments in the 20th Century came at a much slower pace, it took even in the United States 45 years for some of the US households to be electrified, the telecommunication sector since its late 19th century invention and despite heavy use in the two world wars, still took 68 years to reach a majority of people even in the developed world. Yet the Internet has connected and reached a majority within two decades. The next concern is how fast will Artificial intelligence take over key human tasks and these has significant political and security implications
Imperatives for the Sri Lankan Military
Sri Lanka needs to invest in a strategic advancement center within the Sri Lanka Army or as a joint force apparatus, a center that has experts, analysts, including civilians with an industrywide cross sectional integration. Such an initiative will aid in identifying and strategizing to mitigate coming challenges from Climate Change, patterns of violent political extremism and constant cyber political incursions.
Sri Lanka’s army needs access to real time data, it needs access to analysts and experts who can crunch the data provide geo strategic projections, this will enhance not just the situational analysis of the military but also of the political leadership. Today we are mostly engaged in military debates that belongs to the 20th century while we are increasingly pressured by 21st century challenges emanating from unprecedented global transformations.
For most of the post conflict period the, military mantra was civil military relations. The future of Sri Lanka Army may require a more civil military partnerships especially with industry, think tanks and the academia. Most modern militaries have already started deeper engagements with civilian sectors especially in the realm of geo politics, geo economic and technology.
The professional advancement of the military needs to be a priority it cannot play the role of the key national safeguard if it does not have the knowledge, insight or intelligence that is needed to face challenges that emerge from global disruptions. It needs the professionalism that can see through political failures, and not succumb to partisan political motives. Sri Lanka military could benefit from the joint force doctrine, where the Army, Navy and the Air force along with a civilian intelligence infrastructure may have to work as a seamlessly integrated defense architecture to confront threats and adversaries of the 21st Century.
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)