STUTTGART, Germany — NATO sees continued investment in autonomous platforms, artificial intelligence and big data as critical to understanding how a thawing Arctic Ocean will impact military operations, planning, and infrastructure in the High North.

Scientists from the alliance’s Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) want to use autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to ensure they have continuous and sustained samples from the Arctic region. Investments in AI will be key to ensuring those systems remain in operation for long periods of time in the changing, but still austere conditions, said Catherine Warner, CMRE director.

“We have to improve the autonomy and the artificial intelligence of our systems,” Warner said in an Aug. 5 virtual roundtable with reporters. “We have to improve the intelligence, so that if there’s something wrong — just like with the Rover on Mars — if it knows that there’s something wrong with itself, that it can send the error codes back home so that we can try and fix it remotely.”

The CMRE, which falls under NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO), has been collecting data from global waters for decades, testing sound propagation and acoustics, and trying to correlate that information to water depth, salinity, and temperature, Warner noted. This longtime experience in the maritime domain puts the center in a unique position to support a key element of the NATO 2030 agenda: to become the leading international organization to understand and adapt to the impact of climate change on security issues.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently revealed that ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet increased seven-fold in nearly three decades, from 34 billion tons per year between 1992-2001, to 247 billion tons per year between 2012 and 2016. This is one of several factors contributing to rising global sea levels, per the agency.

Meanwhile, geopolitical interest in the Arctic has similarly swelled in recent years, causing nations including the United States, Russia, China, and others to boost military investments and try to gain a foothold in the resource-heavy area. Moscow’s buildup in particular has prompted some Arctic nations in the alliance to push NATO to place a stronger focus on the region.

In the 1980s, the CMRE collected a significant amount of environmental data in the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap of the northern Atlantic Ocean, and has returned to that site several times since 2017, Warner said. Its most recent venture, dubbed the Nordic Recognized Environmental Picture 2021 (NREP21), took place this past July aboard the CMRE’s custom-built research ship, the Naval Research Vessel Alliance.

In recent years, the center has noted “major changes in the ocean’s characteristics since our experiments that we conducted 20 to 30 years ago,” Warner said. Those changes will significantly impact geopolitical, defense, and security challenges in that region, she noted.

The center, in conjunction with other NATO stakeholders, developed an Arctic science-and-technology 2021-2030 strategy to help identify critical environmental factors and areas of the region that would need to be monitored and forecasted. The strategy will be a living document, reviewed each year to allow its authors to add or remove components as priorities change, or new research developments occur, said Alberto Alvarez, head of environmental knowledge and operational effectiveness section at the CMRE.

Part of the strategy will focus on the development and preparation of autonomous platforms and other technologies that can help monitor these changing conditions, Alvarez noted. Managing the health of such remotely directed platforms is “a very big challenge” for the center to beat, he added.

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.

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