Publication

Reinvigorating NATO’s Edge: Military Innovation and the Strategic Concept

19.05.2022

Author: Tim Sweijs, Director of Research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and Senior Research Fellow, War Studies Research Centre

What steps can European NATO allies take to manage the expected coming revolution in military affairs and maintain – or attain – a military-technological edge? In this new paper for GLOBSEC, Dr. Tim Sweijs, Director of Research at Dutch thinktank The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), sketches the challenges that the Alliance confronts in this endeavour and offers concrete recommendations to address these challenges.

Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO allies finally recognised the need to rearm to deter and defend against Russia. The German government announced it would more than double its defence outlays, and other countries followed suit.3 With the lack of funds no longer the principal constraint, European NATO allies will now be able to rebuild their military strength after an extended period of neglect.

But while they are rebuilding, their militaries must deal with the urgent challenges of today and prepare for the conflicts of tomorrow. Maintaining – or attaining – a military-technological edge will be instrumental to NATO’s future warfighting ability and will require first and foremost an ability to innovate. Unfortunately, for various reasons and after decades of budget cuts, military innovation is no longer a strong suit for Western military organisations.

NATO’s forthcoming Strategic Concept needs to offer guidance and set the boundaries for an Alliancewide effort to spur military innovation. This paper sketches the challenges that the Alliance confronts in this endeavour and offers concrete recommendations to address these challenges.

The New...and the Old

It is by now widely acknowledged that military-technological and military-strategic developments are both reshaping the character of war and redistributing regional balances of power – between major powers (cf. the US and China) as well as between minor powers (cf. Azerbaijan and Armenia).

These developments affect both the effectors and the enablers of war across the entire spectrum. Illustrations abound: progress in deep learning is accelerating OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loops and changing the dynamics of command; the proliferation of A2/AD (anti-access area-denial) capabilities is undermining air supremacy and levelling the playing field; the omnipresence of sensors is spurring the panopticisation of physical environments forcing new military modi operandi; and the prevalence of unmanned systems of various sizes is allowing more actors to strike from afar.

But while the new are being born, the old are certainly not withering away, not yet at least. Existing weapon systems, it turns out, are far from obsolete. They can be used to threaten and impose enormous destruction – as demonstrated by the carnage in Ukraine. Battle tanks carry military weight, and rockets and missiles destruct and destroy. Despite all the talk about agility and nimbleness, mass continues to matter, and modern technologies fail to lift the fog from contemporary war.