STUTTGART, Germany — NATO and its member nations have formally agreed upon how the alliance should target and coordinate investments in emerging and disruptive technology, or EDT, with plans to release artificial intelligence and data strategies by the summer of 2021.
In recent years the alliance has publicly declared its need to focus on so-called EDTs, and identified seven science and technology areas that are of direct interest. Now, the NATO enterprise and representatives of its 30 member states have endorsed a strategy that shows how the alliance can both foster these technologies — through stronger relationships with innovation hubs and specific funding mechanisms — and protect EDT investments from outside influence and export issues.
NATO will eventually develop individual strategies for each of the seven science and technology areas — artificial intelligence, data and computing, autonomy, quantum-enabled technologies, biotechnology, hypersonic technology, and space. But for the near future, the priority is AI and data, said David van Weel, NATO’s assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges.
The alliance expects to release an artificial intelligence strategy by this summer, he told Defense News in an exclusive March 4 interview. This effort comes on the heels of the U.S. Congress backing the creation of a national AI strategy in January as part of the country’s annual defense authorization bill.
NATO would do well to have its own AI and data policy strategies in place, van Weel said. He expects the strategies to include NATO’s plans for setting interoperability and technology standards across all EDT domains, and provide guidance on both principles for responsible use of AI-enabled platforms and export control mechanisms.
“It’s basically enabling the organization to then be able to start incorporating AI into military requirements for NATO itself, but also for our allies,” van Weel said. “Data and AI are the first [EDTs] that we will pick up with speed and we’ll deliver on this year.”
The EDT implementation strategy was endorsed during the alliance’s annual meeting of defense ministers in February, and followed the establishment of an EDT road map during the 2019 alliance summit in London. The defense leaders of NATO’s members along with their counterparts in Sweden, Finland and the European Union met virtually for the 2021 ministerial.
The overarching goal of the strategy was to create the conditions for continued interoperability across the alliance as it tackles “a whole new field” of technologies on the horizon. “One of the big challenges when we go into this new phase of disruptive technologies is how do you keep all allies on the same hymn sheet when it comes down to communicating with each other, using the same technology, being interoperable,” van Weel said. “So that’s a big part [of the strategy] and a big role for NATO to play.”
For now, the strategy is internal to NATO, but van Weel said it is undergoing formatting for a “public-friendly version” that will be released “as soon as we can.”
Analysts have previously called for NATO to establish an EDT framework that would help its members invest in critical technology projects in a more unified manner, arguing the move would bridge gaps in data protection and resolve regulatory and national workshare disputes.
Now NATO must find funding for the EDT efforts and work more closely with nontraditional industry partners, said Lauren Speranza, director of the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington. This will be important if NATO is to reduce its traditionally long and drawn-out acquisition timelines, she told Defense News.
The goal should be “trying to find ways to provide quicker timelines that we can rapidly develop and deploy emerging and disruptive, technologically enabled capabilities, and then also trying to provide inroads for some of these smaller startup companies, where that radical innovation is really happening,” she said.
On March 1, NATO’s Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies released its first annual report with recommendations on both of those points. The group of outside experts from academia and the private sector was assembled in July 2020 to develop recommendations for the alliance in the realm of EDTs. One recommendation is to create an internal agency inspired by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It would be composed of existing capabilities and centers of excellence that the advisory group dubbed the “NATO Advanced Technology Project Agency.”
This proposed public research and development entity would not only invest in breakthrough technology projects but also collaborate with NATO enterprise and allied innovation entities to coordinate and manage NATO’s innovation processes.
The second recommendation is to create a NATO investment bank, which would initially function with members’ support, subsidies, seed capital, grants and prizes to fund innovative projects in the EDT domain.
“The Bank would possess its own values-based venture capital fund with a remit to invest in promising solutions, technology companies and start-ups across application domains,” the advisory group wrote. “As such it would develop a portfolio of ownership spanning products and solutions, equity, and intellectual property and would be able to grant licences for commercialisation.”
Van Weel called these proposals “bold ideas,” adding that NATO is “definitely going to take them into account.” However, the alliance will have to take its existing structures into account, as well as the desires of its 30 members, he noted.
For now, NATO is incorporating the recommendations of the advisory group into its ongoing deliberations on how to better connect with the innovation community, with a follow-up to the EDT strategy to be presented to allies by this summer, he added.
The alliance is intent on establishing its role in cooperating and coordinating with innovation hubs in the near future, he noted. NATO has developed and honed close relationships with its armament directors and the federal sectors of its members for decades. But the game of EDTs “is being played in a different ballpark” — in universities and startup accelerators, he said.
“You can expect us to have a view on what this means — in what form will NATO engage, how will we bolster these innovation hubs — before summer.”
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.