How the Five Eyes Can Harness Commercial Innovation

Boatswain's Mate Second Class Donald Rouse and Air Force Airman John Yorde make early morning security rounds by the radomes at the Cryptologic Operations Center, Misawa, Japan.

US Navy / Journalist First Class Preston Keres

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Boatswain's Mate Second Class Donald Rouse and Air Force Airman John Yorde make early morning security rounds by the radomes at the Cryptologic Operations Center, Misawa, Japan.

Here are a few concrete ways to get this alliance’s vibrant commercial technology sectors to address common national-security concerns.

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – which along with the United States are members of the “Five Eyes” alliance – came together to collectively attribute to Russia what may be the most costly cyber attack in history. This public affirmation provided a rare glimpse into the depth of defense cooperation among the world’s English-speaking democracies.

Formalized in 1955, Five Eyes collaboration has proven a remarkable success both throughout the Cold War and in the post-9/11 era of counterterrorism. The informal alliance has until now remained rooted in intelligence sharing. However, in a world of complex and rapidly evolving security challenges, the Five Eye countries should consider a new area of shared focus: leveraging the commercial technology sector to address common national security concerns.

This new focus would complement existing collaboration among the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. The five countries already cooperate on defense science and research through The Technical Cooperation Program, an arrangement that today covers 11 major areas, including electronic warfare, conventional weapons and materials processing, and involves 1,000 scientists. Collaboration under the TTCP is likely set to expand: last year, the U.S. Congress added Australia and the United Kingdom to the National Technology and Industrial Base – a legal framework previously limited to the United States and Canada –  creating new opportunities for joint R&D and controlled technology transfer.

Members of the Five Eyes have also long worked to standardize operating practices and technical specifications, efforts critical to allowing military forces of the five countries to operate together. Cooperation in this area includes the Air and Space Interoperability Council, the Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and U.S. Naval C4 Organization, and the Combined Communications-Electronics Board. Military embeds and liaison officers – some serving in senior roles – further bolster interoperability.

However, the Five Eye countries have yet to come together to fully leverage one of their most impressive assets: commercial technology sectors. Unlike during the Cold War, R&D spending today is largely driven by private industry, while advances in cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence often originate from outside government labs and traditional defense companies. Sustaining qualitative military advantage and generating concrete solutions to specific national security challenges will increasingly hinge on harvesting commercial technology. 

Individually, members of the Five Eyes are starting to move in this direction. The United States has established the DIUx in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, as well as more tailored platforms such as AFWERX and SOFWERX, which are intended to build innovative communities around a specific service or combatant command’s requirements. The UK has jHub based in its Joint Forces Command. Australia recently set up the Defence Innovation Hub, focused on facilitating new technologies that may have a defense application. Canada recently launched the Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security which is designed to create competitive projects around thematic defense areas for the commercial sector. New Zealand has its own similar initiatives on a smaller scale.

Now is the moment for Five Eye members to build on these individual efforts and collectively focus on a set of shared defense challenges and emerging technology opportunities.

One immediate area for cooperation is addressing the burgeoning threat to Five Eye country space assets from both the kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities of potential adversaries. With growing overlap between commercial and defense activities in space, this is an area ripe for governments to collaborate with the commercial technology sector. Indeed, many of the most promising solutions to space threats – such as constellations of small satellites and short-notice launch from diverse locations – will rely on innovations emerging from the non-traditional space industry.

Another challenge to Five Eye members that may be suited to solutions from the commercial technology sector is monitoring wide geographic expanses for military activities undertaken by newly capable competitors. As China’s ability to project naval and air power deep into the Indo-Pacific continues to improve, the United States, Australia and New Zealand will experience an uptick in the need for more persistent and ubiquitous maritime sensors. In the North Atlantic, Russia’s reinvigorated submarine presence will similarly create a growing demand for the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada to develop and deploy new types of sensors for undersea warfare.

Beyond addressing shared operational problems, Five Eyes members could in concert engage the commercial sector to unlock the potential of emerging technology areas to contribute to defense. Three opportunities stand out.

The first technology area is artificial intelligence – specifically, its less controversial national security applications such as tracking online influence attempts by potential adversaries and monitoring financial flows for sanctions violations. The second is quantum technology. Advances in this field could have defense applications – ranging from creating more secure communications to detecting submarines. Already, a number of private quantum technology companies are beginning to appear in Five Eye members. The third area is virtual reality, a technology that could improve the war gaming and simulations central to designing new military operational concepts. DIUx has already begun exploring this avenue, awarding the UK-based simulations company Improbable a $5.8 million contact in 2016.

The members of the Five Eyes collectively have some of the most abundant venture capital markets, diverse commercial technology sectors, and dynamic entrepreneurs in the world. The challenge is how to best integrate these assets to advance their shared security needs.

One option would be to launch a “Five Eyes Grand Challenge” modeled after DARPA’s highly successful series, but open to engineering teams and entrepreneurs from all five countries focusing on developing solutions to a common military operational problem. Another would be to directly connect the growing number of defense innovation hubs in Five Eyes countries. Establishing a Five Eye liaison cell within DIUx, or embedding DIUx personnel within similar organizations in Five Eye countries would start to build a network that would complement the more traditional defense science work of the TTCP.

One of the advantages of collaboration among Five Eye members to harness commercial technology for national security applications is the opportunity to share the investment burden, making limited resources go farther. Establishing a Five Eyes fund, managed by DIUx or a similar organization that would make targeted prototype contracts on innovations relevant to all members would be one way to do this. Another would be to build a “Five Eyes Foundry” with public and private sector funding, bringing entrepreneurs and engineers together to build companies around particular national security themes. If successful, the foundry could be expanded and specialized so that, for example, the United States might host a space-focused model, while Australia could choose to build one around the burgeoning field of quantum technology.

Many of these options will face significant bureaucratic hurdles, ranging from export controls to barriers to Five Eye nationals working on sensitive projects in each other’s defense industries. The expansion of the National Technology Industry Base may go some way to addressing these issues; early “Pathfinder” projects are already underway exploring how the recent legislation will open new avenues for cooperation involving the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. A potentially more intractable challenge is domestic politics: each country has a strong incentive to favor its own industry, even if taking this approach will create redundancies and reduce Five Eye members’ overall access to commercial innovation relevant to national security.

Cooperation among Five Eye countries has proven effective and successful in intelligence, defense science, and military standardization. With growing civil-military fusion among some of their competitors and a widening array of national security challenges, the group should look to new ways to bolster the innovation that underpins its qualitative military advantage. Five Eye members may individually succeed in harnessing commercial technology for defense; the sum of their collaboration will far outweigh these national-level efforts.

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