This month in Madrid, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will update its Strategic Concept, the principal document that guides the alliance’s political-military strategy and collective defense operations. The war in Ukraine has put resilience in the face of Russian aggression front and center, especially in the cyber and information operation domains. Over the years, NATO has digitized and enhanced its security platforms, emphasizing interoperability of systems among its now 30 current member states. If NATO is to become more resilient against advanced persistent threats, hackers, and the maligned states that sponsor them, then the 2022 Strategic Concept must infuse multinational warfighting and deterrence against hybrid threats with methods that facilitate access to data and information sharing on its platforms and across multiple domains, namely in air, cyber, information, land, maritime, and space operations.
The 2022 Strategic Concept
The Strategic Concept is among NATO’s most important documents as it informs alliance planning, resource allocation, and programming based on changes in the threat environment. But the document has not been updated since 2010. The 2010 Strategic Concept, entitled “Active engagement, Modern Defense,” contained just one brief sentence about cyber attacks and did not even mention China. It also stated that “Today, the Euro-Atlantic area is at peace,” even though Russia had invaded Georgia two years before and the threat of a return to great power competition loomed.
To argue that a lot has happened between 2010 and 2022 would be an understatement. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 shattered any illusions of a lasting peace with Russia. China’s territorial ambitions, economic assertiveness, threats against Taiwan, and military modernization threaten the rules-based order. Emerging technologies – in the form of hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and machine learning – have intensified great power competition.
The 2022 Strategic Concept should highlight the essential role of technology in collective defense. To build greater digital capacity while also emphasizing resilience, NATO must adopt a new technological orientation on the military strategic level of command, especially within the Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in Norfolk, Virginia and the Allied Command Operations (ACO) in Mons, Belgium. ACT leverages advanced technologies for security and defense in capabilities, procedures, public-private partnerships, civil-military relations, and at NATO’s Centers of Excellence. Led by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, ACO is responsible for collective defense through direction, requirements, planning, and execution at the strategic level.
However, the Strategic Concept 2022 should focus less on the emergence of new technologies and more on how NATO’s military and civilian personnel use them. ACO and ACT must emphasize greater accessibility to information and data for its multinational warfighters, cyber operators, and civilian professionals. NATO must reach out to experts in the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations to harness ways to expand access and emphasize flexibility in multi-domain operations. NATO can do this by providing more grants to private sector partners and establish a new center of excellence on data and information sharing.
ACO and ACT should also enable personnel and partners to readily access data and information in DIMEL domains: diplomatic, information/cyber, military, economic, and legal. This would expand the range of measures needed by ACT and ACO to connect and correlate deterrence with evolving hybrid threats. To deter hybrid threats across multiple domains, with enhanced access on different digital platforms, NATO members should develop smarter and lethal capabilities to confront threats from state and non-state actors. This would allow ACT and ACO to prepare for any contingency and respond to adversaries in battlefields and battlespaces.
Plug and Play
The 2022 Strategic Concept encourages collaboration in the implementation of guidelines and procedures through a “plug-and-play” concept, in which platforms and systems are optimized for readiness and response at lightning speed. Plug-and-play is based on approaches used in commercial software that allow for innovation and easy access to networks and systems through secure platforms. The NATO School Oberammergau should offer platform training and education courses programs in mobile access for ACT and ACO personnel with appropriate security clearances. This would allow them to access the appropriate platform and utilize data and information necessary for their tasks and responsibilities.
For example, NATO’s Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) and Mine Action (MA) Information Sharing Platform contains rich and publicly available datasets on the roles played by the alliance in mitigating the illicit trade in small arms, tanks, aircraft, and naval vessels. It reports and updates NATO-funded projects to prevent adversaries from acquiring these weapons. However, the SALW-MA platform is outdated and not user friendly, impeding its functionality in practice.
Put simply, NATO’s ACT and ACO should focus as much on easing access to information as it does on advanced technologies and conventional weaponry. This would provide NATO with useful tools to access data and intelligence on the strategic, operational, and tactical levels and in land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains using devices and platforms that can seamlessly connect in different locations. But NATO Commands cannot simply expect its existing personnel to adapt. They must be trained and educated on a regular basis to use digital infrastructures in ways that make their jobs easier.
On the strategic level, the 2022 Strategic Concept must provide NATO’s political and military leaders with flexibility and resources to discern the diversity of hybrid threats in the environment. NATO’s strategic planners, cyber operators, and warfighters should be trained and educated in relevant digital platforms, access, and sharing data and information in ways that improve collaborative decision-making and collective defense. On the operations level, personnel must be given enough space to share data and intelligence as well as to train tactical level personnel on software that enables them to collect, analyze, process, and disseminate information quickly and easily across multiple domains.
Addressing these challenges is difficult for just one nation-state, let alone for all 30 NATO members. Therefore, the 2022 Strategic Concept should emphasize connectivity between member states in multi-domain operations and in collaboration with the private sector and academia. Accessibility to information and data sharing among NATO members should be securitized and harmonized.
Essential Role of Artificial Intelligence
The challenge for NATO is not necessarily adopting and investing in emerging and disrupting technologies for collective defense. Rather, the question is whether ACT and ACO can enhance accessibility to digital platforms and ease communications between platforms. Here, artificial intelligence (AI) can play a role in overcoming critical obstacles.
AI is now occupying a greater space in NATO’s collective defense orientation. The challenge in the 2022 Strategic Concept will be delineating the degree to which AI will enhance the ability of the alliance to analyze information and assess data. Moreover, AI is only as good as the data it relies on. To maintain its technological edge, in 2021 NATO released an Artificial Intelligence Strategy, a good step toward maximizing interoperability of weapons systems, improving infrastructure, and building resilient hybrid defenses. While it emphasizes collaboration with the private sector and academia, the strategy needs further refinement as AI would help NATO’s military and civilian personnel interlink devices on different platforms, perform rigorous data analytics, and quicken response time in response to a conventional or hybrid attack.
One innovation is the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA). DIANA leverages partnerships among academics, technology companies, start-up firms to address the full spectrum of threats in the security environment. Private sector firms utilizing DIANA can access innovation sites and test centers that focus on artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, autonomous machines, and biotechnology. In the past, alliance members supported the creation and development of a venture capital Innovation Fund for technology companies and start-ups. The Strategic Concept should support the initiative with sustained public funds in ways that allow for strategic-level planning at ACO and ATO to communicate more effectively at the operational and tactical levels. DIANA and the Innovation Fund are models for the alliance.
An existing partnership that is proving effective is NATO’s collaboration with Klarrio, a firm that provides the alliance with innovative real-time data analytics and streaming services to combat disinformation and fake news. Klarrio has partnered with NATO’s Strategic Communications Center (StratCom) to assist the alliance in the information domain by streaming data analysis, processing, and applications analytics to identify and eradicate disinformation for NATO’s strategic-level planners. It supports and updates dashboard services to track suspicious activities in social media platforms, maintains an interactive user interface, generates analytical reports, and uses machine learning to analyze data and information.
Battlefields and Battlespaces
The 2022 Strategic Concept must value partnerships and collaboration with the private sector to develop solutions to pressing collective defense challenges. Technology companies, academics, and start-ups can work with NATO military and civilian personnel to push solutions to multinational warfighters and cyber operators entrusted with protecting alliance members from both conventional military threats and hybrid attacks across multiple domains. This should not be difficult since the world’s most advanced capabilities, cutting-edge technology firms, and experts are in NATO member states.
NATO still will need advanced stealth F-35s, aircraft carriers, and tanks to wage war on the battlefield. However, NATO also needs digital tools that enable its fighters to readily access information and data in contemporary battlespaces. Whereas “battlefields” highlight land-based operations over others, “battlespaces” are not concerned with a specific arena. Access to data and information is a requirement for multi-domain situational awareness.
While it is difficult to predict how future geopolitical events will play out, NATO almost certainly will continue to have to manage threats from an aggressive and revisionist Russia, as well as a rising China. NATO should leverage the Strategic Concept in ways that emphasize access and flexibility against hybrid threats across multiple domains – this is contemporary resilience. Deterring hybrid attacks, whether in the form of cyber intrusions, disinformation through social media platforms, or maligned influence operations, demands that NATO protect its digital infrastructure and allow for greater accessibility to information and data necessary to operate in the gray zone of multi-domain spaces. A “whole-of-alliance” approach grounded on multinational collaboration and coordination, and centered on digital accessibility, will strengthen NATO resilience.