NATO’s science and technology organisation details innovations set to be ‘strategic disruptors’

9 May 2020

NATO’s science and technology organisation has released a report, Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040: Exploring the S&T Edge, detailing the innovations that are likely to cause major disruption to the way its member states’ militaries operate over the next 20 years. The technology areas cited in the report as "either currently in nascent stages of development or are undergoing rapid revolutionary development" include data, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, space, hypersonics, quantum, biotechnology and materials.

The report argues that the crossovers between these technologies, such as with data, AI and autonomy, would be highly influential on the development of future military capabilities. Commenting on the report NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană said: “This report is a glimpse into the future of defence. It will guide research at NATO and our allies, to ensure that we maintain our cutting edge technology in the years ahead”.

The report notes how the emerging disruptive technologies (EDT) largely come under four overarching themes: intelligent, interconnected, distributed and digital. Across these themes, the report argues: “Technologies with these characteristics are bound to increase the Alliance’s operational and organisational effectiveness through the development of a knowledge and decision advantage; leveraging of emergent trusted data sources; increased effectiveness of mesh capabilities across all operational domains and instruments of power; and, adapting to a future security environment replete with cheap, distributed and globally available technologies”.

NATO believes these emerging disruptive technologies, if adopted, will allow it to keep pace in an increasingly fast-paced world. The report goes on to say: “Alliance forces and a NATO enterprise enabled by EDTs will expand the alliance’s ability to operate in rapidly evolving operational environments, such as space, cyber (including the information sphere) and urban areas. However, NATO will be challenged to ensure legal, policy, economic and organisational constraints are properly considered early on in the development of these technologies”.

As important as developing its capabilities in these spaces, the NATO report notes that keeping pace with adversaries’ science and technology is also an important factor in maintaining its edge. However, NATO said it should not be assumed that foreign “red” forces will pursue the same technologies or development in the same ways that its members “blue forces” do. The report states: “Red forces are themselves complex and adaptive. It is misleading to consider red force development of EDTs as being a simple mirror of blue force development. Potential asymmetric and peer/near-peer competitors will take differing exploitation paths and may potentially target novel applications in the physical, human or information domains”.

The report notes that like all military technology, countermeasures and counter-countermeasures are eventually developed, and that the “life-span of a technological advantage may become increasingly short”. Nonetheless, it concludes that “For over 70 years, NATO has stayed at the forefront of technology to ensure the defence of its allies and the success of its operations”.

Earlier in the year, the US military’s top AI expert, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, called for closer collaboration with NATO allies in this field in order to gain an upper hand over China and Russia. He complained that progress by some NATO allies was being “immobilized” due to ethical debates. The concern is that low-cost sensors and advances in AI are making it increasingly possible to design weapons systems that would target and attack without any meaningful human control. If the trend towards autonomy continues, humans will start to fade out of the decision-making loop.

Several autonomous weapons systems with various degrees of human control are currently in use by high-tech militaries, including some within NATO (including the United States and the UK), among allies (such as Israel and South Korea), as well as potential adversaries China and Russia. According to Shanahan, China is already using AI for censorship, stifling freedom of expression, facilitating the sale of AI-enabled weapons, “and lowering the barrier of entry of potential adversaries and potentially placing this technology in the hands of non-state actors”. Russia has shown a “greater willingness to disregard international ethical norms” and develop systems that could destabilize international security, he added.

Shanahan believes these issues should compel the US and NATO to “vigorously promote AI for our shared values”. “The deliberate actions we take in the coming years with responsible AI adoption will ensure our militaries keep pace with digital modernization and remain interoperable in the most complex and consequential missions, so that we can continue to rely on the security architecture that has preserved peace, prosperity, and stability in Europe and beyond for decades”, he said. Others, such as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, fundamentally object to permitting machines to take a human life on the battlefield or in carrying out other military and police roles. A total of 30 countries (but none within NATO), now support the call to ban lethal autonomous weapons systems, including the Holy See, and more than two-dozen Nobel Peace Laureates.

While the NATO report recognises that legal frameworks, social norms and regulations to limit and control emerging or disruptive science and technologies “are lagging”, it fails to offer any ways forward for strengthening arms control in this area. Moreover, it fails to recognise the crucial part that NATO itself is playing in encouraging the proliferation of such technologies in the name of maintaining its own technological edge.