As the world changes, NATO has to move faster

It has been a while since NATO first looked beyond the North Atlantic, the area defined in its own name. It now has activities stretching from Afghanistan and the African Union, via the Red Sea. But this year, NATO is set to go even further afield, when it recognises a new frontier in defence: space.

The decision, set to be taken at a December 3-4 NATO summit in London, reflects a change in the nature of threats. It is a recognition that conflicts can be waged in space as well as on land, at sea, in the air, and even online. This is, effectively, the challenge that NATO faces today: how can the alliance evolve as the security environment shifts faster and faster?

The move into space comes just months after NATO celebrates its 70th birthday, and looking back at the world in 1949, it seems a simpler time.

The dangers then were, of course, more existential as NATO was bracing for all-out nuclear war. But the range of actors and threats now are much more diverse. Today, we have to guard against dangers that were not even on the radar in the 1940s (and the radar itself was a new technology then). Now we have to consider a broader theatre for conflict, and threats that include drones, cyber-attacks, hybrid warfare and the disruption of supply chains.

Innovation and defence

These challenges were discussed at a recent German Marshall Fund debate in Brussels that I took part in, on European defence and Transatlantic security cooperation, which looked at disruptive emerging technologies, and how innovation will shape the security environment. The debate looked at the capabilities and technology needed to keep up with the ever-changing threat scenarios, offering both a worrying array of dangers and some inspiration for the future.

Gone are the days when we could talk of the ‘end of history’. Today, countries with radically different political ideologies to NATO’s, like China and Russia, are raising their defence spending. Russia is boasting about hypersonic missiles that combine velocity – five times speed of sound – with pinpoint accuracy. China is already pulling ahead in technologies like artificial intelligence and bioengineering as well as in 5G connectivity – and increasing its investments in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. And in this new era of great power competition, events can quickly spin out of control, with global security implications – as the recent crisis between Iran and the US showed.

The line between war and peace has become blurred, with hybrid warfare increasingly testing our Article 5 commitments. Hybrid threats cover a wide variety of legal and illegal activities, including propaganda, deception, sabotage and other non-military tactics are used by states and non-state actors to destabilise us. Indeed, non-state actors are still growing threats: the menace of terrorism still hangs over Europe, despite the defeat of the so-called Islamic State, and Al Qaeda before it.

Finally, there are internal strains within NATO. The tensions between the United States and European members over burden sharing could flare up again, and tear at the fabric of the alliance. Squabbles between members could emerge, for example, between Turkey and the US over Ankara’s recent purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia. The break-up of NATO is unlikely, but not impossible.

Adapt and modernise

Facing up to these challenges, NATO is adapting and modernising. NATO’s 2018 annual report details activities that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. For example, NATO’s new Cyberspace Operations Centre at SHAPE in Mons, is tackling disruptive online threats. It has set up our new training mission in Iraq to help the country prevent the resurgence of IS and other terrorist groups. It is building the defence capacity of our partners, from Jordan and Tunisia to Ukraine and Georgia.

Back in 2016, NATO and the European Union identified countering hybrid threats as a priority for cooperation, setting up the new European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid COE) in Helsinki. And armed forces are becoming more adaptable, supporting border services in managing migration, and dealing with floods, fires and other natural disasters.

Part of NATO’s adaptation is in its approach. It is building resilience in its system to resist and recover from a major shock – whether a natural disaster or an armed attack; conventional or hybrid. Resilient strategies, tactics, capabilities and people all represent a first line of defence.

This is linked to innovation, which is necessarily an ongoing process. Members need to work together to develop the capabilities and technologies that they need the most, and that includes some of the most advanced areas like AI, biometric collection analysis, nanotechnology, radar observant materials, exoskeletons, underwater drones, and quantum computing. And while pursuing innovation, NATO should prioritise interoperability: one of the greatest strengths of our alliance lies in our complimentary systems.

Outside the NATO framework, members are taking initiatives. Germany announced last year it would create a new cybersecurity agency tasked with innovating technology, akin to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is credited with developing the early internet and GPS. In June, France, Germany and Spain signed a deal to develop a sixth-generation European fighter jet and air combat system, known as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), to replace the Rafale and Eurofighters – while this will replace existing capability, it is still part of a commitment to innovation.

It is our responsibility to ensure NATO stays one step ahead of its rivals. Take the move to develop a space policy. Around 60 nations have now put satellites in orbit – not to mention commercial entities. Most space-enabled services are dual use civil/commercial and military, and the likes of China and Russia are developing space weapon systems. In this theatre, civilian satellites could become vulnerable to manipulation, disruption and destruction – and whoever controls space also controls what happens on land, on the sea and in the air. That is why we need to prevent our adversaries from springing any surprises on us.

These are turbulent times. The tools of warfare are changing fast and risk falling into the hands of violently disruptive entities. We need to address threats as varied as terrorism, border security, data manipulation, hybrid warfare, and humanitarian crises. That is why we have to work on our capabilities across the spectrum. We still have to prepare for conventional threats, where we do not hold the lead in every domain. And we have to adapt too. We need assets, skills, intelligence. resilience and flexibility to enforce our comparative advantage. It’s a tall order. NATO is working on all of these challenges, but time is not on our side. We have to move faster.

Author: Matthieu Borsboom

Leave a Reply