Press release

NATO Strategic Concept: The potential for sustainable defence innovation

on 29.06.2022

The new document on NATO’s priorities offers an opportunity for the alliance to address the future of defence innovation, writes Jacqueline Sirotová.

Jacqueline Sirotová is the Project Coordinator of the Future of Security Programme at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute

NATO’s next Strategic Concept comes after a 10-year break and provides some much-needed momentum to reaffirm our core values and principles while reassessing the alliance’s defence posture. As a result of this long pause and the war in Ukraine, innovation and technological advancement are understandably falling behind.

As we are in the right place to address our resilience and defence strategy to deter current and future adversaries, now is also the time to address the future of defence innovation. With defence spending ramping up, the seventh Strategic Concept will take place in a vastly different world than the last one in 2010 – from a global security perspective and with a new climate, innovation, health, and social concerns.

The expectations and demands of global warfare have also changed. Russia’s usage of heavy machinery and traditional warfighting methods in its invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the many drawbacks of such strategies, particularly in comparison to Ukraine’s clever use of alternative measures.

Regardless of the peculiarities of this specific conflict, there is also a shift in supply and demand. From cyber to information warfare, these “new” domains are becoming more and more prevalent. These means do not require the maintenance of heavy equipment but remain just as effective.

However, not all conflicts can be fought within the new domains, and a credible deterrence cannot be exclusively focused on cyber or space. The upholding of traditional domains and capabilities must be rethought through the perspective of sustainability and innovation. This includes the security of supply chains, lifecycles, costs, servicing, and personnel training.

All of which is to say that the alliance needs to ensure that the future of its capabilities is sustainable and effective long-term. Central to this strategy will be working to promote interoperability on the NATO level, which would involve closer coordination, joint planning and perhaps joint equipment purchases to support NATO’s armed forces.

Recent debates at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum 2022 suggested that high-level interoperability would require more than just purchasing new equipment. Aligning networks and hardware, training personnel with the latest technologies, operations and procedures, and sharing information are vital elements to reaching the magical state of interoperability. However, what might be added is a joint research and innovation strategy for NATO resilience.

The boosted defence budgets are the right starting point for aligning NATO capabilities. Since there is the willingness to dedicate the funds, NATO should ensure the next Strategic Concept offers a joint strategy on interoperability and effective capacity building.

The US investments in R&D grew steadily from 2012, increasing by 24% to 2021. The EU, on the other hand, dedicates a mere 1.2% of the total defence budget. The targets for a particular share of GDP spending on defence do not ensure effective spending.

On the contrary, thanks to the fiscal policies of certain countries, the increased spending often leads to equipment purchases close to the end of the year to ensure a given target is met. In such cases, a joint strategy proposing a capability target and an interoperability target, rather than a spending target, should be set to ensure NATO militaries complement one another and work towards a common goal. Otherwise, the fragmented purchases, R&D spending, and capabilities will only deepen the capability gap between Europe and the US.

Deterrence and resilience must be built with the alliance in mind, with each member state adding to the common goal and strategy. Long-term coordination can help maintain and sustain well-functioning militaries instead of equipping the forces ad hoc based on spending targets. This approach should be accompanied by sustainable innovations so that newly built or modernised capabilities can respond to the abovementioned challenges.

To ensure sustainability, the technologies must address energy, fuel, spare parts or transportation issues, considering the need for green solutions and the potential scarcity of the traditional resources in the foreseeable future. Warfare is not immune to these challenges.

Civilian technology, and the potential for dual-use technology, should fuel innovation within the military sector. The drive for new ideas that would better adapt and accommodate this changing environment should come from close ties between the private and public sectors.

Finland and Sweden, the newest candidate countries, can serve as an excellent examples for NATO on sustaining a profitable and modern defence industry, as they both produce a wide variety of products and technologies usable in the civilian and military contexts. The regulations and procedures in this area represent a potential for more joint action from NATO, which could coordinate and lead the private sector in the right direction.

The Summit and new Strategic Concept provide an opportunity to conduct a thorough reassessment of the alliance’s future, not only to answer immediate questions and challenges but to ensure a long-term strategy that can be developed over the years to come.

* originally published on Euractiv: https://www.euractiv.com/section/defence-and-security/opinion/nato-strategic-concept-the-potential-for-sustainable-defence-innovation/