hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 10 February 2017

NATO’s Innovation Race

Alphen, Netherlands, 10 February.  ‘Offset’; the maintenance of strategic comparative advantage by maximising one’s own strengths, and successfully exploiting the weaknesses of adversaries and enemies. At present I am drafting a major, high-level GLOBSEC report on ‘adapting’ NATO to meet the risks, challenges and threats of the twenty-first century. In many ways ‘Adaptation’ is NATO’s own offset strategy, with innovation the key. As I draft the report I am struck by the extent and the pace of the Innovation Race in which the Alliance must now engaged.

In the past NATO and its nations have tended to enjoy the ‘luxury’ of being able to confront threats in isolation. NATO’s essential challenge today is that it must deter and defend successfully against a range of threats across the conflict spectrum, and at one and the same time. Indeed, whilst there might be no formal alliance between illiberal states and the likes of Al Qaeda and Islamic State, there is clearly a series of very dangerous linkages.

There are also a range of adversarial states and non-state actors, including China and Russia that are seeking to ‘offset’ NATO. At the higher-end of the conflict spectrum strategies range from the rapid development and modernisation of nuclear weapons, long-strike missiles and anti-space capabilities, allied to new anti-ship and anti-air military systems, cyber warfare, enhanced electronic warfare and Special Forces. At the medium to lower end of the spectrum assets, capabilities and strategies range from the use of cyber to disrupt society, including denial of service attacks on critical infrastructure, the use of the internet to further destabilise the already fragile social cohesion of rapidly changing Western societies, leavened by the extensive use of ‘fake news’ to polarise opinion in Western societies. Terror attacks seek to leverage strategic influence by cowering already sensitised populations into fatalistic submission.

The first and main offset threat to NATO is Russia’s growing reliance on a mix of nuclear weapons and hybrid warfare to offset what Moscow sees as NATO’s on-paper conventional military superiority. The second offset threat is that posed by Al Qaeda and Islamic State to Allied societies and with it the danger that terrorism will over time erode the protection of the home base, and profoundly weaken the ability of the Alliance to project security as people lose faith in the ability of governments to secure and defend them. However, there is a third offset threat which ironically could be posed by America’s own offset strategy. Technology drives and shapes policy and strategy often as much as it is shaped by them. There is now a very real danger that technologically-driven US ‘milstrat’ will advance so far ahead of allies that military interoperability, and in time political cohesion, will become impossible to maintain.

The US is looking to develop a range of capabilities and capacities that will widen the already significant chasm between US forces and those of its European Allies. At the high-end of the conflict spectrum such developments include new nuclear and space-based capabilities, advanced sensors, extreme range stand-off weapons and communication systems, the development of advanced missile defence, as well as offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.

The US is also looking further out to the future of warfare by seeking to decisively exploit new technologies by looking into areas such as robotics, system autonomy, miniaturisation, and big data. This strategy includes the development of a more innovative relationship between the Pentagon and US industry to better exploit the entire national supply chain (not simply the defence supply chain). US defence innovation also seeks to establish a form of entrepreneurial security and defence procurement that will lock both innovation and competition into the provision of the future US joint force. Europe? Whilst the British are doing some work in these areas London is investing nothing like the level of political and real capital currently being invested by the Americans. The rest of austerity Europe is being left far, far behind in the innovation arms race. 

NATO Adaptation must be part of the innovation Race. Indeed, Adaptation will only lead to a reinvigorated Alliance deterrence and defence posture if it is part of a sustained and systematic Allied strategy to balance protection and projection. Today, there is a very real danger that efforts by adversaries and enemies to offset US strengths will render an already far weaker and more vulnerable Europe, super-vulnerable to attack. That, to say the least, would be a strategic paradox, if not a little unfortunate.

NATO’s Innovation Race is not dissimilar to the naval arms race that took place between Britain and Imperial Germany between 1898 and 1914, with consequences that could be just as profound, and just as dangerous. The bottom-line is this; if the Alliance is to successfully ‘Adapt’ to the twenty-first century’s hyper-complex strategic environment America’s allies will need to smart up, not force America to dumb down.

Julian Lindley-French

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