Beyond NATO’s Madrid Summit: the technological challenge

NATO tests counter-drone technology during an exercise in Vredepeel, Netherlands (2021)

NATO’s new Strategic Concept, the guiding document that sets out the Alliance’s main objectives, planning, resources and mechanisms, will be presented at the end of June 2022 at the Madrid Summit. The document has not been updated since 2010, which implies that new issues will appear on the agenda. It will be worthwhile identifying the issues that are already there but that might be left behind, thereby shedding light on the Alliance’s adaptive nature.

Technology is one of the issues that will undoubtedly gain in importance. It cannot do otherwise, since the 2010 Strategic Concept –‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’– contains only one reference to cyber-attacks, mentions the word ‘technology’ four times and makes no reference at all to China, which has become the backbone of global competition today.

A decade of development: 2010 to 2022

While the 2010 document did not include many technology issues, since then NATO has been developing strategic actions internally to address both the impact of technologies on its principles and objectives as well as the use that can be made of these tools to enhance its own activities. Moreover, it has done so step-by-step and in an evolutionary manner.

In 2014 the Allied nations adopted a cyber defence policy and action plan, recognising cyber defence as a core task of collective defence. It was not until 2016 that cyberspace was recognised as a new and unique operational domain, and in 2019 the Alliance agreed that a serious cyberattack could trigger Article 5. The same process has occurred with outer space. In 2019 a Space Policy was adopted within NATO and space was declared an operational domain. Two years later, NATO’s 2021 Brussels Summit recognised that an attack into, from or within space posed a severe challenge to the Alliance’s security and could lead to Article 5 being invoked again.

Technologies have also been used to enhance NATO’s internal effectiveness. For example, how to implement a cloud infrastructure within the Alliance so that information can be shared more effectively and instantly between sections, countries or on military missions, or how to ensure data interoperability. The complexity of this issue explains why the process of integrating these technologies to improve capabilities, plans and operations within the Alliance has been slow to adopt.

During this decade, however, NATO realised that it could not only look inwardly on technological matters. It also needed to cooperate with third-country partners. The Science for Peace and Security Programme (SPS) seeks to support cooperation in science, technology and innovation in civilian projects. Although it was created in 2006, the SPS has grown faster in recent years, in areas such as cyber defence (with advanced training courses for 400 experts in Azerbaijan, Jordan and Tunisia) and supporting research in technologies such as quantum-enabled technologies and cyber-physical systems security.

A decade of structuring and coordination: 2022 and beyond

The latest developments in 2021 shed light on what can be expected from the 2022 Strategic Concept. In February last year, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed a strategy for emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) to guide their development. A month later, the EDTs Advisory Group published its first annual report, identifying specific areas where EDTs should be further developed. In June 2021 the Brussels Summit agreed to launch the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and to establish the NATO Innovation Fund.

What challenges lie ahead for the new Strategic Concept this decade?

First, it will be strategic to make a list of priorities on EDTs in two ways. NATO has already defined seven priority areas, but for each of them it would be advisable to specify their level of criticality. A distinction needs to be made between critical, significant, limited impact and ‘peripheral’ technologies. This is no simple task. It is an effort already developed by some allied countries, such as the recently updated US White House list of critical technologies. The second approach to prioritising some EDTs over others is to make an assessment of the contribution these EDTs make to Alliance defence and security in the short, medium and long terms. Delineating these timeframes can help allocate resources efficiently and avoid potential duplication.

This is beneficial both for NATO and for Allies individually, and could prevent the lack of coordination and coherence found in the Inspector General’s 2020 audit on AI projects being developed in the US Department of Defense. Moreover, it is not only beneficial at the tactical level: it can also improve strategic decision-making when it comes to determining what role NATO should play in deterring certain technological developments by third countries.

The second challenge is to make innovation projects flexible and agile. The DIANA mechanism will focus on deep technologies, which are the seven priority areas the Alliance has already identified (artificial intelligence, big data processing, quantum technologies, autonomy, biotechnology, novel materials and space), making it necessary for start-ups, research teams and technology companies participating in the network of accelerators and testing centres in more than 20 allied countries to reinvent their projects in the event of failure or non-delivery.

Many of the partner countries are also members of the EU. The EU-NATO Joint Declaration is expected to be published later this year to identify lines of cooperation. The NATO Innovation Fund, which is the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund, DIANA, and the EU’s European Innovation Council should work together to enable specialised but small start-ups to grow smoothly.

Finally, perception will also be important. Non-NATO countries from the Asia-Pacific area will attend the Madrid Summit, including Australia, Korea, Japan and New Zealand. The first and third cooperate bilaterally with the US through the Quad, Australia already does so through AUKUS and the EU is working on Digital Partnership Agreements with Korea and Japan. Given this multiplicity of initiatives, ensuring mutual trust and confidence in technology projects –within NATO– will be important for their long-term sustainability.

Moreover, discussions in recent years about creating a potential NATO policy on China are still incomplete and will be a sensitive issue, as countries have different views on how to engage with China politically, militarily and technologically.

In conclusion, the Strategic Concept 2022 is a window of opportunity. And, as such, it will reveal many challenges. Working from the outset with a holistic approach will be a necessary condition for success.

Image: NATO tests counter-drone technology during an exercise in Vredepeel, Netherlands (2021). Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).