Technology Adoption: Are we too late to the party?
Jan Havránek and Daniel P. Bagge
Future technologies: Source: NATO, “Science & Technology Trends: 2020-2040.”
NATO and the West are experiencing a reversed kind of revolution in military affairs (RMA) with new technologies bearing far-reaching implications beyond the conduct of war. Past revolutions in military spilled from the battlefield to the civilian sector. They had an effect either by directly impacting the result of a given conflict or through adoption of military technical advantages in non-military aspects of life. Today, we see an opposite trend brought by the private and non-military, non-governmental actors. In their everyday lives, general publics and governments alike face military-grade technologies developed and applied by the commercial sector. And it is the private sector that enjoys exclusivity over these technologies while the military lags behind.
How information is gathered, processed, analysed, communicated, distributed, and utilized has always underlined military planning and assumptions for success in conflict. For example, the reconnaissance strike complex introduced by the Soviets was based on real-time intelligence gathering and underpinned by automated systems and fast data processing. Similarly, NATO’s deep attack concept assumed that commanders “would be given the automated assessment means necessary to rapidly analyse the enemy’s force array.” Such concepts, however innovative and tech-based, assumed a relatively limited amount of data and relied heavily on the human factor. Today, in the era of cloud computing and artificial intelligence, there is a clear shift towards sensor-centric, automated processing. Reconnaissance and analysis are becoming as important as firepower and kinetic effects. Humans are being pushed out from the decision-making due to the quantity of information gathered/coming from the battlefield. The hyper-speed warfare (or the “hyper war,” a term linking the intensity of conflict with cybernetics) risks making the human factor almost obsolete. To a certain extent, human presence in the loop will consequently become more a question of morality and less of efficacy.
None of this is science fiction, as modern technologies enabling hyper war already exist. The question for NATO and the West is not whether they choose to adopt these technologies but how they should adopt them to their benefit.
The situation is even more complicated if we consider the myriad of actors involved in international security. In the past, timing and accuracy of decision-making depended on a system designed by the state, was utilized on the state level, and made for the state’s purpose. Today, external entities such as corporations, non-state actors, groups of citizens and individuals matter as well. They hold the power and the technological means to exercise significant pressure over state affairs. Some even have the ability to largely cripple the functioning of governments and state services.
This development poses a significant challenge to NATO’s ability to deliver on its core tasks. If the Alliance wants to successfully continue its political-military adaptation, it will need a new approach to decision-making, operational planning, and crisis management.
The 21st century introduced an unparalleled speed of innovation and dissemination of (digital) technology among the general population and the private sector. It also hindered states’ ability to remain the sole proprietor of military grade applications. This is due to an unprecedented redistribution of applied research from the government level towards the private sector. Today, private entities commercialize disruptive technologies and provide them directly to the customers, unleashing military level applications into the wild. The governments, namely national security and defence domains are lagging behind in adoption of innovative technologies. This is evident from the spending on military research and development, which is dim in comparison to its private sector equivalents. For example, in 2004, the global spending on civilian research and development was approximately ten times as large as global military research and development.
Emerging disruptive technologies are thus becoming more accessible. The interdependency between state instruments of power (including armed forces) and civilian technology is growing and is expected to grow even further. In the past, military platforms were developed by the private sector, but their sole purpose was defined by the military. Today’s world brings the challenge of dual-use technology that is researched, manufactured, and provided entirely by the private sector, while having military application. Which effectively impacts the competitiveness on the battlefield. With facial recognition, targeting, and other artificial intelligence-powered applications (including micro targeting on social networks), the interest of the private sector and state actors overlap and are often blurred. It is common for state actors to be dependent on private sector providers. Sometimes to the extent where the government is unable to adjust the technologies’ conditions for its purposes, as the usual customer base lies in the civilian business world.
The rise of corporations and digital tycoons brought about democratization of technologies and their global spread in an unprecedented speed, resulting in a digital interdependency. States have been replaced by private entities who hold the keys to information flow and disruptive technologies. These technologies are often introduced to the general public sooner than the governmental bodies even have a chance to understand them.
Technological superiority has always played a significant role in international relations. It usually derived from the use of force and was traditionally in the hands of the state. In the past few decades, non-state entities started surpassing the state’s control. Technology provided by corporations paired with ideology and strategic interests of various state actors. However, state actors were not equipped with proper organizational structures and decision-making processes to stay up to date. As result, they have been left behind not to lead, but to react to technological progress and innovations.
Quantum research on sensors can be an example of the private sector’s success. Non-state actors currently both employ the leading scientists in the field and conduct research in cooperation with competing state interests. All that despite the efforts of the governmental bodies and the military to fund innovative research. This substantially increases the prospects of quantum related applications being provided to the general population before they are utilized by the military, leading to a loss in competitiveness on the battlefield.
The issue is caused by the inability of governmental entities to appreciate the need to conduct basic and applied research competitively with the private sector. In order for it to be done correctly, it would require a substantial organizational change and the ability to understand the potential impacts of disruptive technologies. That is also necessary for proper resource allocation. Modern and disruptive technologies are part of the non-conventional military risks and destabilizing efforts that governmental structures fail to address. A number of technological platforms, social networks, and digital enablers have become tools of digital deceit. They have been used to target the general population, which was unaware of being exposed to hybrid tactics and military grade influence operations. This was enabled by overlaps of influence-operation techniques from the military field into the private sector. Private companies also applied these techniques in target group advertising.
This is not the first time the West has had to deal with ideological competitors trying to gain supremacy. The Cold War was about both ideology and technology, with the stark example of Operation Farewell. Even then, technological superiority was meant to promote ideological and strategic interests. The combination of ideology and technology continued to be a factor in the post-Cold War world. An example of that can be terrorist organizations and their use of basic available technology. The situation in 2021 is, however, starkly different from the1980’s or the 2000s for a number of reasons:
- As argued earlier, the character of warfare has changed profoundly; technologically driven warfare has entered the soft power arena.
- The pace of military operations and general interactions has increased— he human capacity is now limited not only by the speed of events but also by the amount of information collected, processed, and analysed from the battlefield. The ISR platforms are collecting so much data and raw intelligence that it is necessary to automate processes previously not constrained by human capacity or reaction speed demands. The changes pushing the limits of human operators and analysts happen in leaps and are fast paced.
- What is more: private sector capacities play a significant role in international power competition. Technological tycoons represent stand-alone actors risen on the wealth and influence of the technology they provide. They have also become the tools of state influence. Understanding this shift is hard, as we tend to differentiate between private entities, corporations with presence on the global markets, and state actors. However, in many cases, the private corporations are bound by national legislation, hiding as agents of influence in plain sight.
Implications for NATO
So where does all this leave NATO? In 2021, as NATO has already begun to define its vision for the next ten years, it faces three principle challenges:
- Ensuring that decision-makers understand the sheer potential derived from emerging and disruptive technologies and how they will impact the Alliance’s governance and decision models.
- Prioritizing what technologies, the Alliance should pursue, when, and how they fit into NATO’s wider posture;
- Sharing the technological burden equally across the Alliance.
Raising awareness among political leaders about the new technologies’ impact on NATO may not be as simple as it seems. Currently, there is a growing gap in perception of the new technology’s importance between the political and military level. Military authorities of the Alliance have, for a long time, been highlighting the need for innovation and adoption of new technologies. Trials of innovative technological solutions and new capabilities have been part of NATO’s military training and exercises. For example, NATO now regularly tests unmanned systems in the maritime area and there is work being done in the area of Electronic Spectrum warfare. Furthermore, adoption of new technologies in new capabilities development has been encouraged through the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP). In 2018, the Allied Command Transformation developed Emerging and Disruptive Technologies Roadmap, which received political endorsement at the meeting of defence ministers in June 2019.
On the political front, the effort has been slower. Until recently, the Allies themselves have maintained a rather declaratory approach to technology and innovation. Later, in 2020, the Secretary General appointed an innovation advisory group to provide counsel on NATO’s next steps in the tech area. A full political strategy on the emerging and disruptive technologies was finally adopted at the Brussels Summit in June 2021: “[T]his strategy seeks to preserve our interoperability; safeguard our sensitive technologies; and actively address the threats and challenges posed by technological developments by others, both now and in the future. Drawing on the extensive innovation expertise of all 30 Allies, we will further leverage our partnerships, including with the private sector and academia, to maintain our technological edge.”
The Allies pledged to launch a civil-military Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and to establish a NATO Innovation Fund. The aim is to promote interoperability, foster development and adoption of technological solutions, and to allow individual NATO Members to support start-ups working on dual use emerging and disruptive technologies relevant to NATO’s security. The Allies also agreed to continue developing capabilities in the technological domain and recognized the need for research and development and innovation to meet the challenges emerging and disruptive technologies pose. Some of the specific areas where new capabilities must be acquired are air-to-air refuelling, training, precision strike, munitions, air defence, CBRN defence, autonomous systems, and next-generation rotorcraft capability.
The process will require effective prioritization. The afore-mentioned NATO Defence Planning Process already accounts for future technological change in military capability development. Allies have a free reign in how they wish to meet the target, including what platform and technology they wish to choose. The pitfall of this approach lies in the traditional view of military technology adoption and capability development. More specifically, the issue is the government-centric model that operates with significantly longer lifecycles as well as the ownership structures that find no applicable parallel in the private sector’s current pacing and push out of emerging and disruptive technologies.
It will be up to NATO to use both its new and already-existing tools to help navigate through these technologies and decide on which to adopt first. Together with the Allies and the private sector, NATO/DIANA should scan the horizon and say which new technologies are to be integrated with highest priority. NATO must then proceed with the integration into its planning (both capability and civil emergency), training and exercises, as well as the Alliance’s wider consultation and decision-making.
The adoption must happen systematically, at the highest political level. The Brussels Summit should be an impulse for the Council to start incorporating more technologically driven discussions into its deliberations. Scenario-based discussions and NATO’s high-level exercise program should include situations where emerging and disruptive technologies play a decisive role. None of this requires any radical changes to the decision-making procedures or new tools.
Although the NATO Innovation Fund is a step in the right direction, it must reflect the disparities that exist among individual Member States in this context. Many Allies have national assets that fulfil various tech innovation functions. For example, the UK’s jHub Defence Innovation helps integrate market-ready solutions into military. In 2020, Germany established an agency for innovation in cyber security to promote technological innovation and solutions that would enhance the country’s security. NATO should serve as a platform where nations with more advanced structures, know-how and capabilities come forward and share some of these solutions and findings with other Allies.
The NATO Innovation Fund should also facilitate burden-sharing in this area. Emerging and disruptive technologies have so far been guarded as a national treasure; their application and availability in multinational context has been scarce. In the future, not all Allies will possess or have access to new technologies shaping the military capabilities and conduct. Some countries will be faster in technological adoption. Others may not be able to afford new technologies, if they are to meet all other requirements for NATO’s collective defence. The Fund can be a mechanism that balances out these gaps and spreads the burden more equally among the Allies. NATO must now design a system of allocation—currently envisioned on a voluntary basis—that will motivate the Allies to contribute to it. This must take into account national requirements that might be limiting for some Allies and the danger of duplicity with similar endeavours.
There are several examples of sharing mechanisms that NATO has successfully adopted in the past and can now build on: 1) Nuclear-sharing arrangements where non-nuclear members of NATO support potential nuclear missions and the decision-making without possessing the nuclear technology; 2) Common-funded capability models, such as the Allied Ground Surveillance system or NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence, where Allies fund and outsource the development of technology through common / joint financial contributions; while both slightly different in structure and funding, both are an example of technology funded by some Allies, but made available to the entire Alliance. Both examples link to previous revolutions in military affairs. Until now, the closest the Allies have come to having a new technology sharing mechanism is the Sovereign Cyber Effects Provided Voluntarily by Allies mechanism. It allows the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) to request offensive effects to be delivered on a designated target, without sharing the technology with others.
All these examples have one thing in common: technological know-how and intellectual property remains in the hands of the capability providers. This gives NATO an opportunity to forge new tech-sharing arrangements that would include individual Allies and the private sector. This could also prevent the technological gap among Allies from widening any further.
One specific solution could be creating a private sector parallel to NATO’s political partnerships. However, the criteria for such partnerships might be hard to agree on. NATO would have to find a way to satisfy some highly political questions, such as: What companies and what technologies would be represented? Or would Allies even be able and willing to generate funds to support a NATO-branded research & development?
In the meantime, NATO must approach the prioritization of emerging and disruptive technologies by employing its traditional strengths: define its technological requirements through the prism of military requirements and forge a consensus among thirty Allies on the general technological pathway. When NATO sets the standards, individual Allies are usually very capable of delivering, according to their national preferences and legislation.
Lastly, in its ongoing efforts to address the challenge of emerging and disruptive technologies, NATO must take into account similar, already existing or maturing projects and structures. The European Union sees emerging and disruptive technologies as a crucial issue and has developed mechanisms through which they are tackled. The European Defence Agency recognizes technological development as one of the main pillars of its work and provides a useful platform for international cooperation. It aims to support Member States in developing and improving capabilities on a cutting-edge technological level of its Member States and shape their national strategies in this area. The European Defence Fund deals with both technological research and defence capability development and even specifically allocates a part of its financial resources for disruptive technologies.
A major task for the two organizations will now be to find a way to cooperate on this issue and avoid undesirable duplication. The Alliance and the EU must come up with a solution where the EuroAtlantic area is capable of adapting to the ever-changing security environment and can readily adopt fast-advancing technologies. What is more, both sides of the Atlantic must be equally capable partners in this cooperation and burden sharing.
Technological change is real, fast paced, and greatly affects NATO’s civilian-military structures. Never has the Alliance faced so many technological changes that would reach beyond the traditional realm of security and defence.
In the 1990s, the key political question for the future of NATO was whether to adapt by going out of area (in terms of operations and membership) or go out of business. The question for the next couple of years is essentially the same; it touches the very purpose and existence of the Alliance and the utility of NATO: How to make sure that NATO stays technologically relevant so that it can maintain its function and capabilities. Complacency and general political statements will not suffice. The private sector, which is the principal agent of the new kind of revolution in military affairs, is technologically advancing in leaps. If NATO is not able to keep up with this change in organization of geopolitics and technology, it will have to change its organizational structure. With modern and disruptive technologies becoming more mainstream and moving into wider governance structures, similar adjustments will be necessary in NATO’s daily business operations.
NATO can successfully navigate the new wave of revolution in military affairs; however, it must first change its political culture and overall approach to modern and disruptive technologies. It also needs to develop new technology-sharing mechanisms that will be fair to all Allies. There may be different approaches to this change: a reform of NATO’s procurement agencies, a reform of financial mechanisms, or a partnership reform. Either way, any such effort will have to build on the active participation of the private sector. Only then will NATO be able to maintain its technological edge in the future.
Keywords: emerging disruptive technologies, NATO, private sector, revolution in military affairs, decision-making
The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Cyber and Information Security Agency, Ministry of Defence of the Czech Republic, or the Czech Government, respectively.
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