Military Leadership Challenges in the Future Technology Embedded Battlespace

Technology is a key factor in war but the man behind the machine will always remain important. Strategic leadership needs to blend the art and science of war. There exists today a gap between technologists, policymakers, strategists and warfighters. We need to bridge the gap and build an adaptive leadership attuned to emerging threats. Adaptability cannot be guaranteed by technology

By Lt Gen A B Shivane


“The greatest victories that have been won in war do not depend upon a simple superiority of technology, but rather on a meshing of one side’s advantages with the other’s weakness so as to produce the greatest possible gap between the two.”

– Van Creveld (Technology and War)

War, warfare and technology construct

War has an art and a science component irrespective of its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The art of war deals with strategy, which is the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfil the ends. The art of war, thus, centres around leadership and strategy to intertwine material, physical forces with moral forces. It is a ‘clash of wills, not machines’, in which means must be subordinate to ends if the results are to justify the costs. In the high technology wars, we would confront those ends, which are likely to be more complicated, and the circumstances under which they are pursued are less predictable than ever before in our history. Yet the human element despite these changes will be the single most critical aspect of the art of war, fully capable of reacting to the unpredictability or irrationality of the situation. This is not to underestimate or ignore the importance of the science of war. Science and technology were and will remain major factors in the ever-changing character of war and desired outcomes. The challenge for future leaders remains to find the sweet spot to balance the art and science of war.

The conduct of warfare entails essentially two basic battles targeting the capability and will of the adversary. These are the ‘Battle Against the Earth’ and the ‘Battle Against Man’. The ‘Battle against the Earth’ requires superior contact and non-contact warfare capabilities against the five basic domains of warfare – land, sea, air, space and information (including cyber). It is thus a factor of technology and doctrine to target adversaries’ capabilities to cause physical paralysis. The ‘Battle against Man’ requires both cognitive and non-cognitive domain capabilities to target the adversaries’ will, resulting in psychological paralysis, and thus a factor of superior leadership, motivation and training. Both these battles are reciprocal and complementary and thus important for the military leadership to comprehend and embed technology in the planning and conduct of warfare, as an essential tool for shaping favourable outcomes. Yet in the end, the intangibles of willpower, morale, fighting skill, and leadership, far more than technology, will determine the victor from the vanquished.

Technology and future battlespace

The 21st century has witnessed technological change and disruption in all sectors as the norm today. Globalisation and the information revolution have led to enhanced availability and diffusion of advanced military technology. This will enable new technological developments to become accessible and affordable to a larger number of nations and within the grasp of non-state actors. Possibly, the most disruptive changes have been driven by the emergent technology and revolution in military affairs signalling the rise of a military-techno culture in which time, space, force, information and other fundamental conditions are radically changed. The future technology-shaped battlespace will be characterised by the following

  • Enhanced visibility not only to warfighters but also characterised by higher political, media and public visibility resulting in greater scrutiny, interference and counter-narratives by adversaries. Leaders and warfighters will not remain isolated from its fallout and, thus, must be trained to function and work through chaos.
  • There would be an ascent in the levels of volatility and uncertainty with information overload and ambiguity. Clarity of thought and focus, along with the ability to make decisions in such situations while distinguishing between risk and danger, will be a critical ability.
  • Lower predictability and enhanced diversity will require a shared view of the goals and a more collaborative politico-military technology interface.
  • Diffusion in technology will not only make it affordable and accessible but difficult to distinguish foe from friend. Technology in the hands of a terrorist is no more a fallacy.
  • Knowledge and the ability to envision will be the most valuable asset. Knowledge-based decision-oriented and optimised joint force capability will no more be a luxury but a necessity.
The critical challenge defence forces face is not how emergent technology will deliver outcomes, but it is the reshaping of military bureaucracies and higher leadership mindsets that will shape the way we understand, integrate and use technology

Technologies particularly autonomous systems and artificial intelligence will change the character of strategic leadership and smart warfighting from many soldiers controlling few machines to few soldiers controlling many machines. Deployed forces in future will be supplemented by autonomous or semi-autonomous systems controlled by humans in real-time. Yet the most critical and central factor will remain the man behind the machine and his leader. The test, however, remains adaptive leadership to emergent technology, which is knowledge-based, decision-oriented and optimises joint force capability, both for deterrence and warfighting. It is also important to comprehend that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. All technologies have a tradeoff and inherent vulnerabilities cum an ‘anti-technology’ as an evolutionary cycle. Therefore, understanding what new technology will do is as important to understand as what it will undo, and thus the man-technology interface. In future wars, recognition of the potential applications and vulnerabilities of technology, and a sense of purpose in exploiting it will be far more important than simply having access to it.

Leadership challenges in technology-enabled digital battlespace

Leadership may be the least expensive resource yet the most expensive asset a military possesses and the key to all successful military applications. Its fiscal cost may be minuscule in comparison to the acquisition budgets for high technology equipment, yet in the end, the price of non-adaptive leadership will be enormous to both the military and the nation. Technology will, thus, remain as relevant as its adaptive leadership, structures and doctrines.

However, there exists a significant gap between technologists, policymakers,  strategists and warfighters due to compartmentalised functioning. The importance of bridging this technology and the human domain is increasing; the challenge remains organisational, strategic, and cultural. The luxury of distinctive pursuits in the compartmentalised military and political arenas or individual service silos does not exist on contemporary battlefields and more so in a technological shaped operational environment. The need is to understand the importance of each of the emerging technologies and optimise their military application through a dynamic interplay between all stakeholders.

The fact is defence forces and their strategic leadership are conservative by nature, status quo by culture and, thus, guilty of preparing for not only the last war but the wrong war

However, the critical challenge defence forces face is not how emergent technology will deliver outcomes, but it is the reshaping of military bureaucracies and higher leadership mindsets that will shape the way we understand, integrate and use technology. The essence of this integration must deliver favourable outcomes in the least time and with minimum cost, in an essentially integrated joint operational environment. Hence, the nation’s statecraft and strategic leadership of the 21st Century will have to blend the art and science of war and be attuned to the rapid changes in the strategic context cum technological environment. Unfortunately, this is far from ground reality and often finds lip service.

The fact is Defence Forces and their strategic leadership are conservative by nature, status quo by culture and, thus, guilty of preparing for not only the last war but the wrong war. So, technology and warfare continue to manifest faster than strategic leaders and soldiers can adapt to the changes.

Reality check: Technology & Leadership

Technology has its underpinnings and dynamics, which need to be understood and addressed by strategic leadership to optimise capabilities in future wars. These are as follows:

  • When a new technology first appears, the leadership has no idea what to do with it, which leads to confusion. This is because the technology cycle manifests faster than the leadership-adaption cycle and the doctrine-change cycle is even slower than the leadership-adaption cycle. Thus, culturally there is resistance to change and technology remains more spoken than exploited. Although technology is making great advances, human beings will remain the most effective systems for determining its relevance.
  • Technology without integration, or a conceptual underpinning, is the hype before the let-down. Sun Tzu warned, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Technological superiority does not guarantee military success, it will act as an enabler, yet not the problem solver always. The conduct of war requires both science and art. Good leadership, quality soldiers, cohesive units and streamlined organisation, are necessary. Artificially intelligent, autonomous machines are likely to be among the greatest military integration challenges due to the additional complexities it creates for network architectures.
  • Technology compels integration & jointmanship. Training and equipping of forces become a key aspect when we are trying to integrate technology for optimising joint force capabilities. Technology is just a tool and an enabler. It is the status quo culture and individual service mindset that retards its exploitation.
  • The quantity has its own quality and thus boots & tracks on the ground count. This is true particularly when nations have disputed borders like us. Also, high-technology has not replaced low-technology in land warfare. It has supplanted it. Every technology is a transition and has limits

Training for certainty, educating for uncertainty

Leadership is the core of the military and central to the nation. However, over the decades, leadership development has gone largely unchanged while the technological environments have changed drastically. The leader must be firmly grounded in the fundamentals of tactics, technology, and leadership. This will require a greater fusion between education and training. Leadership must have an optimal blend of the art and science of leadership skills. Art is to visualise, describe, direct, and lead and science are to understand, exploit and optimise the technology. We are presently getting a sub-optimal blend of the science of warfare. The lack of this facet leads to techno-phobia, and resistance to technology adaption, which is critical for future wars.

Leadership is the core of the military and central to the nation. However, over the decades, leadership development has gone largely unchanged while the technological environments have changed drastically. The leader must be firmly grounded in the fundamentals of tactics, technology and leadership

Thus, future leaders in the information and digital age will need to be trained through innovative instructional delivery means across a range of disciplines centred around analytical and critical thinking, technology interface, cooperative learning, and simulations. Information age future leadership will have to be collaborative based on a shared vision, joint ownership, mutual values and technology interfaced decision making while shunning bureaucratic cultural retardation. Leaders will have to deal with an entirely new set of intellectual, cultural and equipment challenges that were not present even a decade ago. These leaders will have to think strategically, have clarity on organisational goals, foster group cohesion, enforce discipline, and make pragmatic decisions in chaotic dynamic situations. Skilling and specialisation at execution levels along with continuity of on-the-job experience will be required. This will impact not only recruiting patterns, and training methodology but also a review of outsourcing of talent both in war and peace. Similarly, technology training and capsules aided by digitised systems will be required for higher military leadership training to bridge the gap. The key would remain training for certainty, and educating for uncertainty.


The challenge is to build an adaptive, versatile, agile and perceptive leadership attuned to emerging threats. Adaptability is a cognitive quality and cannot be guaranteed by technology. The speed of decision-making almost intuitively along with rapid adaption to changes will increasingly be a key attribute of future leaders. This will require a directive style of command, tech-savvy culture and greater mutual trust. This will also require management of change in how we train to fight and how we fight to win in a digital era. Management of change requires cultural review and possibly is the greatest challenge and a possible retarder. Culture is an enduring phenomenon that always pays a price for technology unless the culture is evolutionary and mindsets agile. Culture being complex and deeply engrained, will require a top-bottom focus cum influence, and a bottom-up fostering. Strategic leaders must, thus, learn to harness the positive dimensions of culture to reorient it to the realities of changes driven by technology.

-The author is a PVSM, AVSM, VSM has had an illustrious career spanning nearly four decades. A distinguished Armoured Corps officer, he has served in various prestigious staff and command appointments including Commander Independent Armoured Brigade, ADG PP, GOC Armoured Division and GOC Strike 1. The officer retired as DG Mechanised Forces in December 2017 during which he was the architect to initiate process for reintroduction of Light Tank and Chairman on the study on C5ISR for Indian Army. Subsequently he was Consultant MoD/OFB from 2018 to 2020. The Officer is a reputed defence analyst, a motivational speaker and prolific writer on matters of military, defence technology and national security.The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily carry the views of Raksha Anirveda.