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NATO finds AI, data, space and hypersonics as ‘strategic disruptors’ to the way militaries operate over the next 20 years

Emerging innovations within today’s most cutting-edge science and technology (S&T) areas are cited as carrying the potential to revolutionize governmental structures, economies, and life as we know it; others have argued that such technologies will yield doomsday scenarios and that military applications of such technologies have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of power.


As noted by General Sir Richard Barrons , former commander of Joint Forces Command (UK): “The same wide span of Fourth Industrial Revolution technology (data, processing, connectivity, AI, robotics, bio-sciences, autonomy and so forth) that is changing how we live, work and play will now transform the way war is waged – in a process spanning at least a generation … Military transformation will largely be about the rapid adoption and adaptation of civil-sector-derived technology and methods in disruptive military applications … The future of military success will now be owned by those who conceive, design, build and operate
combinations of information-based technologies to deliver new combat power.”


NATO, as an alliance of like-minded countries, strives for peace, security, and stability across the EuroAtlantic area. It continues to provide the essential framework for defence and security collaboration across the operational spectrum, be it collective defence, crisis management or cooperative security. But today’s NATO faces a dangerous, unpredictable, and fluid security environment, with existential challenges and threats from all strategic directions including state and non-state actors; near-peer military forces; cyber threats; space; terrorism; hybrid warfare; and, information operations, sats NATO. Building an alliance capable of reacting to current and future needs over a broad range of potential operations requires a delicate balance between the needs of today and those of decades to come. Getting it right begins with a clear understanding of the S&T landscape, especially the enabling and destabilising role of emerging or disruptive technology (EDT).


NATO’s science and technology organisation has released a report detailing the innovations that are likely to cause major disruption to the way its members’ militaries operate over the next 20 years. In the report, NATO cited data, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, space, hypersonics, quantum, biotechnology and materials as tech areas ‘either currently in nascent stages of development or are undergoing rapid revolutionary development.’ Technologies with these characteristics are bound to increase the Alliance’s operational and organisational effectiveness through: the development of a knowledge and decision advantage; leveraging of  emergent trusted data sources; increased effectiveness of mesh capabilities across all operational domains and instruments of power; and, adapting to a future security environment replete with cheap, distributed and globally available technologies.



As noted by NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg : “NATO’s technological edge has always been an essential enabler of its ability to deter and defend against
potential adversaries. Our future security will depend on our ability to understand, adopt and implement technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, autonomy, and hypersonic systems. In October 2019, Defence Ministers approved an Emerging and Disruptive Technologies (EDT) roadmap to help structure NATO’s work across
key technology areas, and enable Allies to consider these technologies’ implications for deterrence and defence, capability development, legal and ethical norms, and arms control aspects.”


The report reads: “Technological development in data, AI, autonomy, space and hypersonics are seen to be predominately disruptive in nature, as developments in these areas build upon long histories of supporting technological development. As such, significant or revolutionary disruption of military capabilities is either already on-going or will have a significant impact over the next five to ten years. “New developments in quantum, biotechnology and materials are assessed as being emergent, requiring significantly more time (ten to 20 years) before their disruptive natures are fully felt on military capabilities.”


The report added that the crossovers between these technologies, such as with data, AI and autonomy, would be highly influential on the development of future military capabilities. Alongside this NATO also noted the importance of the intersections between data, AI and biotechnology; data, AI and materials; data and quantum; space and quantum; and space, hypersonics, and materials as other areas that would influence the development of military technology.


Commenting on the report NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană said: “This report is a glimpse into the future of defence. It will guide research at NATO and our Allies, to ensure that we maintain our cutting edge technology in the years ahead”.


China has in recent years made major investments in the field of AI and hypersonics, which analysts have previously warned could see the People’s Liberation Army leapfrog the US when it comes to military technology. The report notes: “China, following the release in 2017 of its AI development plan, has also obviously moved quickly to expand the science of AI and explore its use.”


In the report, NATO noted how the emerging disruptive technologies (EDT) largely come under four overarching themes: intelligent, interconnected, distributed and digital.

  • Intelligent: Integrated and integral artificial intelligence, analytics and decision capabilities across he technological spectrum.
    – Autonomy: Artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous systems capable of some level of autonomous decision making. Such autonomous systems may be robotic, platform based or (digital) agent-based.
    – Humanistic Intelligence: The seamless integration of psycho-social-techno systems supporting enhanced human-machine teaming and synergistic behaviours.
    – Knowledge Analytics: Advanced analytical methods (including AI) exploring large data sets and advanced mathematics to provide insights, knowledge and advice hitherto impractical.
  • Interconnected: Exploitation of the network (or mesh) of overlapping real and virtual domains, including sensors, organisations, institutions, individuals, autonomous agents and processes.
    – Trusted Communications: The use of technologies such as distributed ledger technologies (e.g. blockchain), quantum key distribution (QKD), post-quantum cryptography and AI cyber-agents to ensure trusted interactions and information exchange.
    – Synergistic Systems: The development of mixed (physical or virtual) complex systems-ofsystems allowing for the creation of novel ecosystems (e.g. smart cities).
  • Distributed: Decentralised and ubiquitous large scale sensing, storage, computation, decision making, research and development.
    – Edge Computing: Embedding of storage, computation and analytics/AI into agents and objects close to information sources.
    – Ubiquitous Sensing: Embedding of low (or lower cost) sensors to create large sensor networks across the human-physical-information domains.
  •  Decentralised Production: Exploitation of AI-assisted design, novel materials, and (mixed material) 3D/4D printing technologies, to support just-in-time local digital manufacturing and production.
    – Democratised S&T: Reducing costs of design and production, increasing computational capabilities and the broad availability of S&T information will increase innovation and the generation of novel science.
  • Digital: Blending of the human, physical and information domains to create new physiological,
    psychological, social and cultural realities.
    – Digital Twin: A digital simulacrum of physical, biological or information entities digitally linked (often in near real-time) to the original, supporting predictive analytics, experimentation and assessment.
    – Synthetic Realities: The creation of new perceived cognitive or physical realities based on the integration of psycho-socio-technical systems. Such realities may be augmented, virtual, social or cultural in nature.


Across these themes, NATO said: “Technologies with these characteristics are bound to increase the Alliance’s operational and organisational effectiveness through the development of a knowledge and decision advantage; leveraging of emergent trusted data sources; increased effectiveness of mesh capabilities across all operational domains and instruments of power; and, adapting to a future security environment replete with cheap, distributed and globally available technologies.”


Disruptive effects will most likely occur through combinations of EDTs and the complex interactions between them. The following synergies and inter-dependencies are projected to be highly influential for the development of future military capabilities:
• Data-AI-Autonomy: The synergistic combination of Autonomy, Big Data and AI using intelligent, widely distributed, and cheap sensors alongside autonomous entities (physical or virtual) will leverage new technologies and methods to yield a potential military strategic and operational decision advantage.
• Data-AI-Biotechnology: AI, in-concert with Big Data, will contribute to the design of new drugs, purposeful genetic modifications, direct manipulation of biochemical reactions, and living sensors.
• Data-AI-Materials: AI, in-concert with Big Data, will contribute to the design of new materials with unique physical properties. In particular, this will support further developments in the use of 2-D materials and novel designs.
• Data-Quantum: Over a 15 – 20-year horizon, quantum technologies will increase C4ISR data collection, processing and exploitation capabilities, through significantly increased sensor capabilities, secure communications, and computing.
• Space-Quantum: Space-based quantum sensors, facilitated by Quantum Key Distribution communication, will lead to an entirely different class of sensors suitable for deployment on satellites. Increasingly commercial, smaller, lower power, more sensitive and more distributed space-based sensor networks enabled by quantum sensors will be an essential aspect of the future military ISR architecture in 20 years.
• Space-Hypersonics-Materials: Development of exotic materials, novel designs, miniaturisation, energy storage, manufacturing methods and propulsion will be necessary to fully exploit space and hypersonic environments by reducing costs, increasing reliability, improving performance and facilitating the production of inexpensive task-tailored on-demand systems.


Countering adversarial EDT development

As important as developing its capabilities in these spaces, NATO’s report notes that keeping pace with adversaries’ science and technology is also an important factor in maintaining its edge. However, NATO said it should not be assumed that foreign forces will pursue the same technologies or development in the same ways that its members do.


The report reads: “Red forces are themselves complex and adaptive. It is misleading to consider red force development of EDTs as being a simple mirror of blue force development. “Potential asymmetric and peer/near-peer competitors will take differing exploitation paths and may potentially target novel applications in the physical, human or information domains.”


NATO noted that like all military technology, countermeasures, and counter-countermeasures are eventually developed. It also said that increasingly globalised supply chains mean the ‘life-span of a technological advantage may become increasingly short.’ As a result of this NATO thinks that the best operational success in the next 20 years will come from actors who are ‘best able to effectively integrate EDTs within enterprise and operational functions, as well as those who continue to push the technological edge.’ The report found that it is ‘essential’ for the alliance and its members to assess the impact, readiness, synergies, and operational applications of each outlined emerging technology, with the report adding that members have ‘little choice but to adapt to this environment’.

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