Technology and Leadership Challenges in the Digital Battlespace

May 02, 2022

By  Lieutenant General A B Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)


Lieutenant General A B Shivane, a second generation officer is an NDA alumnus, and a highly decorated Armoured Corps officer with over 39 years distinguished military service including a stint in UN mission. As a renowned scholar warrior, he has authored over hundred publication on national security and geostrategic issues, besides two books and is an internationally renowned speaker. He was the former Strike Corps Commander and Director General Mechanised Forces.   The General was a Consultant to the Ministry of Defence  (Ordnance Factory Board) from 2018 to 2020.  He is presently the Distinguish Fellow and holding COAS Chair of Excellence at Centre for  Land Warfare Studies.


The nature of war is unchanging, hence force and violence will not disappear but will manifest in newer forms by technological advancements in the character of war and conduct of warfare. The above equally also applies to military leadership: it too has an enduring nature of core values cum ethics, and an adaptive dynamic character. The art of war thus centre’s around leadership and strategy, to intertwine material, physical forces with moral forces, while the science of war will be a factor of the technology. The challenge remains an optimal amalgam of technology, strategy and the human element.

In future wars, recognition of the potential applications and vulnerabilities of a technology, and a sense of purpose in exploiting it will be far more important than simply having access to it. Thus future leadership in the information and digital age will need to be trained through innovative instructional delivery means across a range of disciplines centred around analytical & critical thinking, technology interface, cooperative learning, and simulations. The leader must be firmly grounded in the fundamentals of tactics, technology, and leadership. This will require a greater fusion between education and training. The key would remain training for certainty, educating for uncertainty.

“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 enduring and eternal nature and an evolving dynamic character.  The nature of war is the unchanging essence of its moral and physical characteristics regardless of shifting motives, dimensions of war or technological advances. The character of the war on the other hand changes with evolving actors, approaches, technological progression and ideologies. Since nature is unchanging, force and violence will not disappear but will manifest in newer forms by technological advancements in the character of war and conduct of warfare. The above equally also applies to military leadership: it too has an enduring nature of core values cum ethics, and an adaptive dynamic character driven by a multitude of challenges including integrating technology, command dynamics and adaptive doctrines. Clausewitz remains relevant even today largely because his work is based on the understanding that every war is inherently a non-linear phenomenon, the conduct of which changes its character in ways that cannot be analytically predicted.

War also 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 pursued 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.

War, warfare and technology interface needs clarity of context. War is a condition in which a state might find itself; warfare is a physical activity conducted by armed forces in the context of war and technology shapes warfare. War is timeless and universal while warfare is the conduct of war and thus its dynamics change with technology as the primary driver of military innovation. However much technology may change warfare, it never rules warfare but presides in warfare. Technology defines and governs warfare; however, it is not deterministic. It sets the stage for warfare and is the instrumentality of warfare. The human element and its leadership will however be always pivotal to technology exploitation and success.

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”. “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. “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.

Evolution of Warfare with Technology

War has been a permanent preoccupation of mankind to settle all disputes, in over six thousand years of recorded history. If there is an activity that is as old as human civilization, then it is war.  Confrontation, conflict, hostility and wars have historically have been intrinsic to resolve differences between tribes, nations and empires to acquire a greater share of resources/territory or prestige and power. This led warriors to don the inventor’s hat and led to developments to gain a competitive edge, which eventually created the timeline of the evolution of warfare.  The tools of warfare transformed from sharpened sticks and rocks to bows and arrows, to automatic guns and predator missiles. Cannons led to artillery and the idea of tanks evolved with Leonardo Da Vinci thinking about designs for one in 1482 to finally shaping up to be a major game-changer at the Battle of Somme 1916. Transformation at sea and in the air steadily grew both in technology and application. Each new piece of military technology changed the way soldiers fought and the tactics they employed. Thus the tools of warfare have been evolving throughout human history, but only in recent times institutionalised for systematically innovating military technology in geometric progression.

With the onset of the 21st Century, new challenges started taking shape across the world. Lines between combatant and non-combatant started blurring as also the emergence of grey zone warfare, invisible warfare and many more such technology-driven means. Terrorism, lone-wolf attacks, proxy wars and insurgency came to the front as a global threat with the diffusion of technology and innovative use of tools of warfare.  What would remain constant is the fact that competitive advantage on the battlefield is a factor of the optimal amalgam of technology, strategy and the human element.

Technology and Future Battlespace
Despite the scope and speed of societal and technological transformation, war itself will remain a constant in which life, death, and personal sacrifice ultimately determine victory in combat. If history is any guide, sustaining an effective military culture in this time of transformation will require the support of timeless values and resources coupled with an improved capacity for rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.

Lt Gen Walter F. Ulmer Jr., US Army
(Former Armoured Division Commander and Corps Commander)

The 21st Century has witnessed technological change and disruption in all sectors as the norm today. Globalization 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 signaling 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, mil-political interfaced, decision-oriented and optimized joint force capability will no more be a luxury but a necessity.

We may not see large monolithic armies, instead, we will see technologically empowered, networked enabled, agile, versatile and lean adaptive forces in the arena of warfighting. Similarly, while space is narrowing for all-out war, yet multiple protracted conflict situations with greater lethality and intensity will dominate the strategic security domains. In these conflicts, the contact and non-contact warfare dimensions have reached new milestones, which have greatly influenced the leadership construct. Autonomous fighting platforms, cyber warfare and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles / Drones have already begun to impact warfighting strategies. Directed Energy Weapons, Nano Technology, Quantum Computing, Big Data Analysis, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence once operationalised will have a transformational impact on the planning and conduct of warfare and will revolutionise traditional notions of force projection and force application. The impact of technology on the future battlespace will thus enlarge its canvas and depth with long-range lethal and precision capabilities beyond visual ranges with added deniability and greater intensity. The massing of effects rather than the massing of forces will gain credence with swarming manoeuvres threatening survivability. Information dominance, digitized battlefield and integrated networks will enhance the tempo of operations. However, clutter management, information overload and manipulative technologies will remain a challenge for the decision-makers.

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, to understand what a 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 a technology, and a sense of purpose in exploiting it will be far more important than simply having access to it.

Leadership Challenges in a 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 technical 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 in 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 optimize their military application through a dynamic interplay between all stakeholders.

No technology can serve as a substitute for sound policy and flexible strategy. Thus the most important technology asset in the inventory will be the adaptive and informed human operating it. Efforts to educate and train future leaders to function in high-tech and low-tech environments must thus receive a high priority as part of the primary military education curriculum. Strategic leaders and military commanders at all levels must also be conscious that their operations will have real-time global transparency and internal diffusion over the length and breadth of their command, including families left behind. The role of strategic leaders thus becomes both critical and challenging in an environment flooded with differing themes, ideas and dynamic narratives to distinguish reality from fabricated illusion. Some commentators warn that the world has entered the “post-truth” era.

However, the critical challenge defence forces face is not how emergent technology will deliver outcomes, but rather it’s 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 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. Thus technology and warfare continue to manifest faster than strategic leaders and soldiers can adapt to the changes.

Warfare at its core is a human endeavour, said Gen. Robert W. Cone, commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command. Failures to recognize this and prepare sufficiently resulted in the initially successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and their slogging devolution to insurgency, he said. Oftentimes in recent years, we have been mesmerised by technology,” Cone said. “We have to understand that at the end of the day, war is a fundamentally human clash of wills. When one capability is taken away from the enemy, he will regroup and come back with a new form of resistance or force. We went to war without understanding the human dimension of what was going on ... in Iraq and Afghanistan,”.

Reality Check: Technology & Leadership

Technology has its underpinnings and dynamics which need to be understood and addressed by strategic leadership to optimize 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 and a response. This is because the technology cycle manifests faster than the leadership adaption cycle and the doctrinal 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 organization, 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.

•    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 visualize, describe, direct, and lead and science is to understand, exploit and optimise the technology. We are presently getting a sub-optimal blend of the science of warfare. Lack of this facet leads to techno-phobia, and resistance to technology adaption which is critical for future wars.

The technological revolution of the 21st century is a reality and is only likely to intensify. This will lead to new weapon systems shaping future warfare, and mandate tech-savvy scholar warriors to adapt to the changes and exploit technology for a decisive edge. Conceptual skills will provide the capacity to perform effectively in these conditions. Leaders must become versatile, flexible, adaptive and innovative to remain effective to take advantage of the emerging technologies in the battlespace. Thus, the defence forces transform to meet emerging security challenges, and we review modernisation, restructuring, and doctrine, it is imperative we also examine our approach to military education to be relevant and adaptive. In the information, age wars have become more complex, yet increasingly tactical actions will have strategic impact, as seen in the Ladakh 2019 standoff.

Thus future leadership in the information and digital age will need to be trained through innovative instructional delivery means across a range of disciplines centred around analytical & 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 organizational goals, foster group cohesion, enforce discipline, and make pragmatic decisions in chaotic dynamic situations. Skilling and specialization at execution levels along with continuity of “on the job” experience will be required. This will impact not only recruiting patterns, training methodology but also a review of outsourcing of talent both in war and peace. Similarly, technology training and capsules aided by digitized systems will be required for higher military leadership training to bridge the gap. The key would remain training for certainty, educating for uncertainty.

The challenge is to build 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 would require management of change of 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.


Technology is never going to replace the human in warfare, but the human that recognizes its potential and exercises an optimal blend of the art and science of warfare will emerge victorious. This is the essence of training and warfighting in the technology-dominated digital battlespace. Nations and their military must seek to exploit technological advantages as be part of a balanced approach that recognises the primacy of policy and strategy, and therefore the criticality of adaption and integration first rather than last.

End Notes

1.    Alex Roland, “War and Technology”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, (https://www.fpri.org/article/2009/02/war-and-technology/)

2.    Barry Rosenberg, “Technology and leadership” , Armed Forces Journal (http://armedforcesjournal.com/technology-and-leadership/6v0r1)

3.    Milan Vego, “Science Vs the Art of War”, NDU, (https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/jfq/jfq-66/jfq-66_62-70_Vego.pdf?ver=2017-12-06-115633-447)

4.    Lt Col D J Watola, PHD & Allister Macintyre, PHD, “Technology and leadership: International Perspective”, Princeton University (https://catalog.princeton.edu/catalog/10511171)

5.    Lieutenant General A B Shivane, “Operational Art: Western Front-Concepts, Means and Methodologies”, Seminar Army War College on Operational Art.

6.    Lieutenant General A B Shivane, “Technology Empowered Manoeuvre - Future Perspective, Talk at Centre of Land Warfare Studies, Apr 2019

7.     Lieutenant General A B Shivane, “Strategic Decision Making in Future Conflict Situations” , Talk at COVINTS (Covert Overt Intelligence Solutions) 2020

8.    Nathan K. Finney, “Military Leadership in the 21 Century, Strategic Bridge, (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5497331ae4b0148a6141bd47/t/573f9413f85082130765745c/1463784485378/%23LEADERSHIP+Series+from+The+Strategy+Bridge.pdf)

9.    PK Mallick, “Military Leadership - The Changing Paradigm”, CLAWS, (https://www.researchgate.net/publicatio/344325989_MILITARY_LEADERSHIP-THE_CHANGING_PARADIGM)

10.    Zachery Tyson Brown, “ Unmasking War’s Changing Character”, Modern War Institute at West Point, (https://mwi.usma.edu/unmasking-wars-changing-character/)

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