FOR AN IDEA of what the alliance will be dealing with in the years to come, head to Norfolk, Virginia. It is home to Allied Command Transformation (ACT), one of NATO’s two strategic commands, the other being its operational one with its headquarters at Mons, in Belgium. Since 2009 French generals have been at the helm of ACT, a reward for France’s return to NATO’s integrated military structure; the most recent American in charge was James Mattis, seen by some in Europe as NATO’s saviour as defence secretary for the first two years of Mr Trump’s presidency.
What makes ACT interesting is its focus on the future. Its job is to shape NATO’s response to emerging demands as the world changes. That includes devising “minimum capability requirements” for new technology. It also involves getting out a crystal ball to divine big global trends and their military implications decades ahead. General André Lanata, the current supreme allied commander transformation (SACT), says his command “is one of the motors of adaptation for NATO”.
That motor is having to speed up. Digital technology is moving at a faster rate than traditional military investment, often driven by the private sector, leading ACT to do things in new ways: more bottom-up, more plugged into outside networks and with a greater willingness to accept the risk of failure. “Experimentation is key,” says General Lanata.
ACT co-ordinated more than 20 experiments at Operation Trident Juncture last year. One tested in-field “additive manufacturing” (known as 3D printing) for critical components. Another tried out unmanned sensors that could cut the personnel needed to protect forces and bases. A third sought to show how autonomous vehicles could improve battlefield logistics and cut manpower.
The West used to assume that it could count on maintaining its technological superiority. Today that looks complacent. The Aspen Strategy Group, in a recent book, “Technology and National Security: Maintaining America’s Edge”, sees a “transformative era” ahead which could threaten America’s position as the world’s strongest military power. The Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy, published last year (the first for a decade), notes that many vital new technologies come from the commercial sector and are available to rivals, eroding the “conventional overmatch” that America has grown accustomed to. Russia innovated in the field of hybrid warfare to devastating effect in Ukraine, blurring the line between peace and war. China has ambitions to be a world-beater in artificial intelligence, big data and quantum computing, all of which will have major military uses.
Such technologies promise to compress the time available to deal with a crisis, which can put a 29-country alliance at a disadvantage. NATO’s need for consensus is often seen as its Achilles heel. Advances in hypersonic weapons, moving at more than five times the speed of sound, will shorten response times further. Military types are fond of talking about responding at the “speed of relevance”; that speed will get ever faster.
Technology is also opening up whole new dimensions for warfare. One is space. Some of the alliance’s larger members—America, France, Britain—are thinking hard about it. President Trump recently launched a new space force. Oddly, ACT does not yet have a mandate to tackle it, but cyberspace is now one of its core areas. In 2016 NATO agreed that a cyber-attack could trigger an Article 5 response. It has recognised cyber as a separate domain for warfare, alongside land, sea and air. Last year it established an operations centre for cyber at Mons.
So far NATO has concentrated on cyber-defence. It is reckoned to have done a good job at protecting its own installations from cyber-attack. But many of the broader networks on which communications among the allies depend, as well as national military facilities, are more vulnerable. The alliance has not developed collective offensive capabilities in cyber (those remain national, like intelligence), though it is said to be contemplating them.
At ACT, work on a cyber-doctrine should be approved within a year or so. As in other areas, interoperability is at the core, be it for defending networks, ensuring situational awareness or carrying out plans. By the end of 2019 NATO should be able to start conducting cyber-operations. Even so, the whole cyber area remains a huge task for the alliance which it has only just started to tackle.
Russia today, China tomorrow
In the long term it is the rise of rival powers that concentrates minds. The central challenge identified in America’s National Defence Strategy is the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition from China and Russia, out to shape the world according to an authoritarian model. Russia is a declining power and increasingly a regional one. Over time, the global challenger is China.
Every four years NATO’s crystal-ball-watchers at ACT produce their “Strategic Foresight Analysis” (SFA), looking ahead two decades and beyond at the big trends that will affect the security environment. Now, as part of the next round, they plan to look at regions: north Africa, a potential source of mass migration; the Arctic, increasingly on the security radar because of global warming; Russia, NATO’s traditional focus; and, last but not least, Asia-Pacific. In the most recent SFA report, released in 2017, China was mentioned more than twice as often as Russia. China’s joint exercises with Russia in the Baltic in 2017 and its growing interest in the Arctic are part of the trend.
China’s importance for the future is awkward for NATO. The alliance was not set up to handle it. It has no policy for dealing with it and no real relationship with it. Yet in the coming years, as America has to devote ever more attention and resources to it, China could profoundly affect the choices the alliance faces.
Technology is opening up whole new dimensions for warfare.
- How NATO is shaping up at 70
- Decades after the end of the cold war, Russia is showing new aggression
- NATO members’ promise of spending 2% of their GDP on defence is proving hard to keep
- What would happen if America left Europe to fend for itself?
- Preparing for conflicts by cyber-means
- What NATO is doing to keep abreast of new challenges
- What NATO needs to do to live to its 100th birthday
- Sources and acknowledgments