Can a Focus on Innovation Save NATO?

NATO is rewriting its core strategic concept for the first time since 2010. As NATO bureaucrats in Brussels scribble away, NATO is beset with a plethora of security challenges. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and unmanned systems raise open questions about how militaries will organize and fight in 2032. At the same time, militaries have recognized the growing dependency on known technologies in space and cyberspace. Climate change is raising the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards like hurricanes and wildfires while strengthening migration flows and general instability. China is rising in the East, using its growing economic and military might to bolster its influence in the region. And, of course, Russia has invaded Ukraine.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine clearly shows the inevitability of change in global security. In only a few short days after the invasion, Germany instituted a new 100 billion euro fund to modernize its military, Sweden and Finland expressed new interest in joining NATO, and former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called for a nuclear weapons sharing agreement. Nations throughout the world have clearly recognized the threat the Russian invasion poses to the broader international order, which is predicated on the assumption states should not invade other states. Of course, the war is not yet over, and the geopolitical dust may settle in new, unexpected ways.

The NATO strategic concept should define and enhance NATO’s role as an innovation foundry. As a confederated alliance, NATO has a major strategic advantage in granting member states the freedom to innovate and diverge in how they make crucial defense and security decisions. Smaller states with fewer resources need to find more effective and efficient ways to use them. But the concepts, policies, doctrines, and strategies the smaller states develop may help inform the practices of larger member states. This allows the inherent risk of innovation to be disseminated throughout the alliance.

Plus, NATO dominates the world in academic excellence. In the US News and World Reports’ best college rankings, a non-NATO member doesn’t show up until twenty-fifth place. That college, the University of Melbourne in Australia, also happens to be located in a close NATO partner. Excellent universities mean excellent research, excellent teaching, and sharper minds. That means improved technology, innovative ideas, and military leaders equipped to think critically about emerging challenges. Better applying such brilliance to defense innovation can only help the alliance take on the broad, dynamic challenges it faces.

The Strategic Context

The global security environment is changing in broad, dynamic ways.

Geopolitically, Russian aggression is growing, China is on the rise, and the alliance’s future in the Middle East is uncertain. Russia has invaded Ukraine, adding another military intervention to its list of twenty-five since 1991. Russian active measures also played a role in the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump, the decision for the United Kingdom to exit the European Union, and the weakening of European Union member states write large. At the same time, Washington is quite worried about the rise of China as a competitor for global leadership and an opponent in a potential fight over an independent Taiwan. Understandably so: Chinese defense spending hit $240 billion in 2019 without needing to prepare for a two-front war. Chinese calls for control over Taiwan seem to have grown louder and stronger, too. The US withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan leave NATO’s future role in the Middle East unclear.

Geopolitical competition is also taking place in new domains. In the past few years, NATO has wisely identified cyberspace and space as critical domains of competition. Today’s militaries are deeply dependent on both domains. Complex computing systems support today’s advanced weapon systems and platforms, and those systems can create significant cyber vulnerabilities. Cyberspace also allows adversaries to strike, disrupt, and even destroy critical infrastructure assets in a member state without putting a single boot on the ground. On the space front, the Department of Defense notes that space-based positioning, navigation, and timing are “integral to enabling the Joint Force” to carry out objectives in the National Military Strategy and National Security Strategy. Cyberspace and space are also interrelated themselves, as satellites depend on cyber technology. Cyber ​​and space dependence is particularly acute when it comes to new technologies like artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, and drone swarms.

NATO has identified eight emerging disruptive technologies: big data, artificial intelligence, autonomy, quantum technologies, space technologies, hypersonics, biotechnology and human enhancement, and novel materials and manufacturing. Advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence are leading to more sophisticated unmanned systems, usable in the air, on the land, at sea, and perhaps all of them at once. Quantum computing threatens traditional encryption methods, while quantum radar threatens traditional stealth. Additive manufacturing allows new means of producing defense equipment, while nanotechnologies allow new types of materials with novel properties. What’s more, these technologies may interact in complex and unforeseen ways. How might artificial intelligence lead to improved bio- or nano-technologies? If quantum radar weakens the advantages of stealth, does that make cheap massed drones more valuable? Even if these technologies prove to be over-hyped in the short-term, technology is always growing. The evangelists may yet prove right.

NATO has opportunities to strengthen its ability to counter these threats while simultaneously better binding member states together.

What Should Be Done?

Three core tasks have traditionally defined NATO’s activities: collective defense, collective security, and crisis management. NATO should add a fourth: collective resilience through innovation. The aim of the new core task would be to prioritize NATO’s capacity to innovate and learn, and in so doing, bind states more tightly together as an alliance. This task would aim to expand and strengthen existing NATO efforts like the NATO 2030 Initiative to ensure innovation remains a key part of the alliance, not just until 2030, but until 2100. What’s more, it offers specific paths to realize the commitments NATO members made in the 2021 Brussels Summit Communique to strengthen NATO as an organizing framework, enhance resilience, foster technological cooperation, and strengthen NATO capacity building.

The starting point for innovation is expanding research and development collaboration. NATO recently started a Defense Innovation Fund and a Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA). The forty-seven test centers and nine accelerators under DIANA need to be integrated as a permanent feature of the alliance as a whole, which means codifying how the accelerator sets priorities, how research results are disseminated, and how research findings support other NATO activities. NATO should also go beyond the accelerator to encourage and enable the creation of more bilateral and multilateral research agreements and general memorandums of understanding on research cooperation. But that’s just the start.

How militaries use technology is often more important than the technology itself. France and Germany’s use of tanks during World War Two is a good illustration. Although France and Germany developed tanks with similar capabilities, they used them in different ways, to very different effects. French tanks were mostly an augment to infantry forces, while Germany built its entire blitzkrieg strategy around tanks, linking them together with new radio and other communications technologies. New NATO centers of excellence focused on various disruptive technologies can help with this by better educating NATO members about these technologies and supporting doctrine development, interoperability, and testing and validating concepts.

NATO should launch a “War Game 2030 Initiative” to identify, experiment with, and evaluate new concepts for employing technologies and considering the ways adversaries might employ them. NATO could hold alliance-wide competitions to assess different answers to common defense questions such as: what combination of unmanned and manned systems are most effective in amphibious assault missions? Winners would earn points of military pride for their country and contribute to the alliance in ways beyond simple defense spending metrics. In addition, NATO should explore new ways to conduct war games, especially through the use of synthetic environments. NATO might partner with non-traditional stakeholders like video game designers and eSports leagues to draw on their experience in making realistic, dynamic war gaming environments.

NATO has thirty members. That’s a lot of opportunities for cooperation. In fact, there are 435 possibilities for bilateral cooperation, with possibilities including everything from Albanian ties with Belgium to joint United Kingdom and American cooperation. NATO should establish a NATO diplomatic corps to help identify opportunities for interstate collaboration and support collective NATO diplomatic goals. NATO diplomats could be stationed at each NATO member state, critical non-NATO partners and rivals, and international organizations like the European Union. NATO diplomats could also help advance common NATO positions around emerging international treaty issues like the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and calls to ban autonomous weapons. This would differ from existing defense attaches and inter-state diplomacy in that NATO diplomats would represent collective NATO interests, not just national interests.

The North Atlantic Council and the NATO Military Committee require consensus between member states. Innovation can be tough when thirty member nations need to agree to it. And even tougher if more nations join. To that end, NATO should establish a fast-track option to allow the North Atlantic Council and the Military Committee to make decisions based on strong majorities (eg, 60 percent or 75 percent agreement) in specific circumstances. For example, NATO might agree to deploy assets in a conflict on a consensus but allow certain details to be agreed upon by a majority. Of course, states who own those assets may be required to sign off on any decision or receive greater voting weight, which would give greater influence on the details of employment. This would streamline and improve NATO decision-making so that NATO decisions are not always the lowest common denominator. Likewise, a majority decision-making mechanism would also allow greater opportunity to sanction member nations for not upholding the common democratic values ​​of the alliance.

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