Kalashnikovs and Moore’s Law: Polish Security and the Digital Revolution
By Dr. Milo Jones
It is well-documented that digital technologies are having a profound effect on intelligence, and perhaps even changing the fundamental character of warfare. In a previous FIBiS essay, I detailed some of the problems that digitization presents in the realm of intelligence, especially for mid-sized powers like Poland. In this one, I will discuss one route by which Poland might unlock digital opportunities in the strategic realm, and why it is essential to do so.
As The Economist recently noted, “despite all the changes the computer revolution has already wrought, it is only just getting started.” In the face of such change, it may help to move from the abstract logic of Moore’s Law (i.e., the rule-of-thumb that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, while their cost halves) to the more concrete logic of the Kalashnikov. What the machine gun was to the 20th Century, the microchip may be to the 21st Century. In other words, to think about digital technologies’ impact on security, it helps to think of them not only as enablers of intelligence but also as a facilitator of kinetic violence. Microchips are, after all, “dual-use” technology: they are in phones and dishwashers, but they are also the core of drones, 3D printers, genome sequencers, surveillance devices, etc.
The iconic image of Kalashnikov is helpful because it reminds us that there has been deflation in the cost of violence before. In 1898 in Sudan, the British General Kitchener set out to avenge the death of General Gordon at the hands of the followers of the Mahdi. At the battle of Omdurman, thanks partly to their use of early machine guns, Kitchener’s troops killed at least ten thousand poorly-armed Sudanese with the loss of only 48 British soldiers. By the end of the 20th Century, the price and availability of much better automatic weapons in Africa had dropped dramatically. Moises Naim, for examples, relates that in 1986 in a village in Kenya, an AK-47 cost 15 cows. By 2005, the price for an AK-47 in that same Kenyan village had dropped to just four cows.  Today, in some places, Kalashnikovs go for as little as $50. That drop in the price and availability of violent technology is how you go from Omdurman to Black Hawk Down in 100 years.
However, there is one key difference between machine guns and microchips: the speed of change. Quality and cost improvements that took machine guns a century will take a decade or less in the digital realm.
So how should Polish security and intelligence decision-makers respond to the coming wave of digital change? First of all, they must abandon the casual fatalism that sometimes infects medium-sized nations in the face of technological change. Poland can and should innovate in digital defense and offence. Immediately, one will hear, “But we don’t have the budget to compete with larger nations and their sophisticated technical capabilities!” To those people, I would say learn from Iran! If the Islamic Republic of Iran – a poor nation, under heavy sanctions for decades – can produce drones and cruise missiles that outsmart the costly and “sophisticated” Western defense systems employed by Saudi Arabia to defend its oil fields (as they allegedly did last week), then Poland – the nation that helped crack Enigma in WWII, with almost triple the per capita GDP of Iran, no sanctions, fine universities and access to NATO secrets – should step up defense-related digital innovation. What is required primarily is vision and a will to act, not huge investments (and not necessarily from the public sector: see below).
Second, instead of a purely top-down, dirigiste approach to innovation, Poland should consciously create a national ecosystem for digital innovation in the defense and intelligence realm. Such a bottom-up approach to innovation allows for a “natural selection of accidents,” accounts for the sheer speed of digital change (especially relative to government processes!), and opens the possibilities of civilian spinouts that help the Polish economy as a whole.
Elements the lay the groundwork for a Polish intelligence and defense digital ecosystem might include:
- The creation of a Polish Intelligence and military cyber reserve force, or cyber-auxiliary, just as the US Marine Corps has done. Cultural fit can be a problem, but if this famously clean-cut elite American force is willing to work with patriots “with purple hair”, then the Polish services might embrace digital technology in a similarly flexible manner. Another USMC lesson is that digital change is NOT just new gadgets – it is new doctrine and organization, too. The Polish Army should also note that the US Marines have driven digital change down to the tactical level, reconfiguring the rifle squad to include “squad systems operators” and embedding a small quadcopter drone in each 15-man unit.
- In society at large, Poland’s Territorial Defense Force might partner with local high schools to establish robotics and computing clubs associated with every unit. In some ways, these clubs would be another type of digital auxiliary force, but one that would boost the total talent pool on which Poland can draw as these young people mature. Such robotics and computing clubs are not cheap, but the boost to security and civilian innovation and capabilities they would offer in the long run offer Poland significantly higher value than, say one extra battery of Patriot Missiles or a single F-35 fighter plane. We have already seen in Ukraine how a single grenade-carrying civilian drone can destroy $1 billion of ammunition. For offence and defense, Poland’s Territorial Defense Force needs that kind of thinking. Polish industry would also benefit from a more digitally capable workforce.
- Finally, Poland special services should establish – in partnership with the Polish finance community – a dedicated venture capital arm to scout revolutionary digital tools with niche applications for intelligence and defense. In the US, the CIA has had a venture capital arm, I-Q-Tel for twenty years. It works with other venture capital firms to spot, fund and grow capabilities. Similarly, Mossad has a Technological Innovation Fund called Libertad charged explicitly with investing in breakthrough technologies that help protect Israel. Such funds are not only about providing money to start-ups. They offer a valuable match-making function between innovations occurring in universities and the private sector that might have intelligence and defense applications and sources of finance. Also – by being in the business of spotting intelligence and defense-related developments– serve an essential counterintelligence function. Finally, these funds also help CIA and Mossad understand what is happening in the digital realms, and thus better evaluate adversaries.
Of course, microchips are not machine guns. All analogies are imperfect, but that does not mean that they are useless. When Polish leaders begin to think through the strategic implications digital technologies, however, thinking through the social, economic and political consequences of the spread of older military technologies may at least make the need for immediate, decisive action on the digital front clear.
 An interesting look at some of their equipment and uniforms can be found at: https://royalarmouries.org/stories/object-of-the-month/sudanese-jibbah/ and http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/weapons/index.php/tour-by-region/oceania/africa/arms-and-armour-africa-20/index.html
 See the 2006 book Moisés Naím, Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy.