Abu Dhabi’s Edge fo­cuses on smart de­fence strate­gies

The National - News - - NEWS EMIRATES - Kelsey Warner

Abu Dhabi’s new de­fence group will rapidly de­velop new sys­tems to deal with threats by mil­i­tant groups and ar­mies as it bids to be­come an ex­porter of cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy.

Edge chief ex­ec­u­tive Faisal Al Ban­nai said AI-pow­ered de­fence sys­tems are among the new ar­eas the con­glom­er­ate of 25 state-owned com­pa­nies is ex­plor­ing.

Smarter weapons are needed to tackle mil­i­tant groups that use crude home-made weapons such as drones and hide among civil­ians, he said.

Two drone at­tacks on Aramco pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties in Saudi Ara­bia in Septem­ber tem­po­rar­ily took more than half of the world’s largest crude ex­porter’s pro­duc­tion off­line.

“The drones that were built [to at­tack Aramco as­sets] were made with off-the-shelf com­po­nents,” Mr Al Ban­nai told The Na­tional.

“There are many ex­am­ples avail­able of com­mer­cial tech­nol­ogy that can be stitched to­gether very fast and can cause a lot of dam­age.

“The fu­ture bat­tle­field is yes, large-scale wars of full ar­mies on full ar­mies. But as you see in this re­gion around us, you also see a lot of or­gan­ised ar­mies with mili­tia ties.

“They’re still backed by state ac­tors but they are mili­tia style, they hide in cities, they hide be­hind civil­ians … you need dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies and in­tel­li­gence to deal with it.” Mr Al Ban­nai spoke to The Na­tional at the Dubai Air­show two weeks af­ter Sheikh Mo­hamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Com­man­der of the Armed Forces, un­veiled one of the Mid­dle East’s big­gest de­fence groups.

Edge is com­prised of com­pa­nies em­ploy­ing about 12,000 peo­ple and man­u­fac­tures ev­ery­thing from small arms to home-grown mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles such as the NIMR.

“The goal is to achieve na­tional sovereignt­y on very spe­cific, crit­i­cal de­fence ca­pa­bil­i­ties. That’s the right of ev­ery coun­try,” said Mr Al Ban­nai, who founded the Abu Dhabi cy­ber­se­cu­rity con­trac­tor DarkMat­ter and Ax­iom tele­coms in the 1990s.

With per­sis­tent geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sion, de­mand for mil­i­tary equip­ment is in­creas­ing de­fence spend­ing. Global mil­i­tary spend­ing rose to $1.8 tril­lion (Dh6.61tn), the high­est ex­pen­di­ture since such data was first re­li­ably recorded, in 1988, ac­cord­ing to the Stock­holm In­ter­na­tional Peace Re­search Institute.

“The UAE spends a lot of money to de­fend it­self. That money will be rerouted to build tech­nolo­gies to de­fend it­self,” and to sell to al­lies, Mr Al Ban­nai

said, as the coun­try pro­ceeds with its strat­egy to build a knowl­edge-based econ­omy amid the push to di­ver­sify away from oil.

The man­date for Edge is to de­velop ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy faster than large legacy de­fence firms, Mr Al Ban­nai said.

“What we learnt [at DarkMat­ter] is there’s al­ways a way to de­velop at speed and in a rea­son­able, cost-ef­fec­tive man­ner,” he said.

De­fence is “an in­dus­try which is re­ally known to take an ex­tremely long time and cost a tonne of money to do things”.

He said Edge is in­vest­ing heav­ily in au­ton­o­mous ca­pa­bil­i­ties “whether for drones, cars, ships, or drones for pack­age de­liv­ery. Au­ton­o­mous is au­ton­o­mous”.

Mr Al Ban­nai named quan­tum com­put­ing as one of the big­gest emerg­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and “an area we will be ag­gres­sively in­vest­ing in”.

He cau­tioned, how­ever, that quan­tum com­put­ing is still a new and rel­a­tively un­proven field. The com­pany is also in­vest­ing in tech­nol­ogy for elec­tronic war­fare, in­clud­ing hard­ware-soft­ware equip­ment such as sen­sors, cam­eras and radar.

“It’s no longer 100 tanks and you know where you’re shoot­ing,” Mr Al Ban­nai said. “You need much more pin­pointed ac­cu­racy” which in turn will re­duce the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties in wartime.

Edge is on the look­out for tie-ups with com­pa­nies from de­fence giants such as Lock­heed Martin – with which it has a joint venture to main­tain Black Hawk he­li­copters in Al Ain, among other projects – to ac­quir­ing small and medi­um­sized tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies.

Bring­ing to­gether SMEs with en­gi­neers “who are ac­quainted with mis­sion crit­i­cal sys­tems” can speed up com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions.

He cred­its the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Pro­gramme and the nu­clear power plant at Barakah for en­tic­ing a new crop of UAE stu­dents to study space and nu­clear physics, among other in-de­mand jobs do­mes­ti­cally, and sees Edge play­ing a sim­i­lar role.

“Nor­mally we are not a na­tion that mi­grates. The in­dus­tries here are what we will study,” he said.

Edge is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent to link­ing academia, like the new Mo­hamed bin Zayed Univer­sity of Artificial In­tel­li­gence, to jobs in ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy and in at­tract­ing in­ter­na­tional tal­ent to the UAE.

“What these ca­pa­bil­i­ties are today are dif­fer­ent from what they were 10 years ago and they will be dif­fer­ent to­mor­row.”

Leslie Pableo for the Na­tional

The Edge stand at the Dubai Air­show at Mak­toum Air­port. Edge is ex­plor­ing AI-pow­ered de­fence sys­tems

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