NEW – January 16, 2023
Speaking at an expanded board meeting of the Russian Defence Ministry on December 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the need to carefully study all information about the NATO forces and means used by the Alliance in ongoing military conflicts: “All this should be carefully used to build our Armed Forces, to increase the combat capabilities of our troops, as well as domestic intelligence agencies”.
Not so long ago, the US Department of Defence published its budget for the 2023 fiscal year, it allocated a record $130.1 billion for research and development. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin described the reason for this budget increase: “We understand the need to increase our readiness for advanced technologies, cyberspace, space and artificial intelligence.”
While closely monitoring the escalation of tensions in various parts of the world, the military is increasingly focusing on technological solutions that can potentially give one side an advantage in a conflict.
The present and future conduct of war is determined by geopolitical, social, economic, and military trends. However, many of the threats are related to the development of technology.
In this regard, the report published at the end of 2022, adopted at the 68th annual session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly “Technological innovation for future warfare”, is interesting. It is based on information from publicly available sources or meetings of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly that are not classified.
The report specifically looks at how emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) can revolutionise future military and warfare capabilities. The promotion of technological innovations and their timely implementation in the armed forces will play an important role in the development of the military potential of NATO countries. Therefore, the report focuses on technological issues.
Military operations can take many forms, ranging from high-intensity conventional warfare between almost equal opponents to counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, as well as digital warfare. However, the changing nature of warfare is primarily driven by advances in technology and access to it.
Data and digitalisation are becoming increasingly important. Digitalisation has transformed the digital, information and cybersphere into an operational environment and a new theatre of competition that is not limited by geographical boundaries. New technologies are shaping new military concepts. Potential threats from cyber attacks or attacks on space objects are not measured by their geographical proximity. They can be launched from the most remote and remote corners.
Conflicts will increasingly revolve around information control and involve cyber-information operations to counter enemy narratives. Ransomware and malware attacks are growing at a rate of 400% per year and are spreading all over the world. Cyber espionage and cyber sabotage will become increasingly high on the agenda, which will require strengthening cyber defences and cyber intrusion detection techniques, as well as failsafe and backup networks. Critical infrastructure and high-tech companies are the main targets for state and non-state actors. According to the annual risk survey conducted by the international insurance broker WTW, almost 75% of companies expressed concern about state-sponsored cyber attacks, and more than 50% were concerned about government retaliation against private companies in international diplomatic disputes.
NATO allies are faced with the task of eliminating cyberspace – related vulnerabilities in weapons systems. The growing interconnection that 5G provides allows multiple services to be combined and covers the entire frequency spectrum with one single and unified technology. Relevant and timely information is extremely important for military operations. 5G, thanks to its high speed, accelerates decision support in the armed forces in real time. This promises hyper-converged communications and secure data networks, as well as enabling new command-and-control applications and simplifying logistics. In addition, 5G networks facilitate the transfer of huge amounts of data to remote sensors and weapons in dense, stable battlefield networks. This provides instant situational awareness, as well as increased training and combat capabilities.
The importance of geography, especially geographical distance from potential opponents, is changing. Whereas in the past it was primarily soldiers on the frontline who participated in combat operations, now combat operations can be conducted over long distances, affecting both military and civilian objects. Technological advances in the cybersphere and in space add new critical security boundaries.
In the space sphere, reducing the cost of launching and transferring technologies will gradually allow other countries, such as Iran or North Korea, as well as private companies and non-state actors, to participate in space activities. Both the possible “weaponisation” of space and the use of cyber tools will allow potential opponents of the Alliance to attack the military and civilian infrastructure of NATO member states from afar, so sustainability is crucial.
Easy access to technology and the increasing availability of increasingly sophisticated commercial off-the-shelf technologies are empowering weaker and technologically deficient adversaries, including terrorist groups and other armed non-state actors. For example, in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents used mobile phones to activate improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Improvised explosive devices caused the greatest losses during operations among allied soldiers and thus became a serious operational threat.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are used by both national armed forces and non-state actors and are becoming increasingly functional and miniaturised. Digital transformation expands the opportunities of new participants and provokes new competition. For example, the number of state and non-state actors authorised and equipped with cyber tools has increased significantly. Thus, the presence of a complex dual-use technology by one of the parties to the conflict may make it difficult for the enemy to use its technological advantage.
Emerging and disruptive technologies
Emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) are expected to play a crucial role in the development of NATO’s military capabilities. Each of the EDTs is brilliant, but together they create significant military upheaval, which NATO strategists believe will allow them to maintain the technological superiority necessary for its operational and organisational effectiveness. Moreover, military capabilities will increasingly depend on intelligent, interconnected, distributed, and digital networks.
The NATO Organisation for Science and Technology (STO) has identified eight “major strategic disruptors” relevant to NATO capabilities between 2020 and 2040: 1) data; 2) artificial intelligence; 3) autonomy; 4) quantum technology; 5) space technologies; 6) hypersonic sound; 7) biotechnology and human enhancement (BHE); 8) new materials and manufacturing (NMM).
Data, artificial intelligence, autonomy, space and hypersonic sound are already having a devastating impact on military capabilities and are expected to increase significantly over the next five to ten years. As for quantum technologies, biotechnologies and new materials, the STO assesses new developments in these areas as “urgent”, so it takes another 10-20 years to have a significant impact on military capabilities (although recent media reports suggest that this time interval can be significantly reduced).
Data that represents significant volume, speed, diversity, and reliability is defined as “big data” (BD). As a result of digitalisation, the proliferation of new sensors, new communication methods, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the virtualisation of social and cognitive spaces (such as social networks), it is becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend information, that is, the flow of data. Thus, an increasing amount of data requires analysis to understand, describe, and predict events.
Big Data Advanced Analytics (BDAA) describes advanced analytical techniques for understanding and visualising large amounts of information. BDAA can provide NATO with a decision-making and knowledge advantage based on the innovative collection, processing, use, dissemination and synthesis of vast and diverse data sources and information products. Areas most likely to be affected by the development of BDAA are: information; surveillance; intelligence; training and training; enterprise management; logistics; operations support; science and technology; information management.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been identified as the biggest technological challenge for NATO. It refers to the ability of a machine to autonomously perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as planning, understanding language, recognizing objects and sounds, learning, and solving problems. The explosion of data and information flow will make using AI a necessity for BDAA to turn data into useful knowledge.
The impact of AI on allied military capabilities will mainly occur through the use of embedded AI in other related technologies, such as: virtual/augmented reality; quantum computing; autonomy, modelling and simulation; space; materials research; manufacturing and logistics; BDAA. Advances in AI will also create new vulnerabilities and may lead to a possible AI arms race.
C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) will benefit from increased use of virtual assistance, AI-enabled decision support. AI will contribute to the development and use of unmanned vehicles and will affect overall weapon use and impact (for example, improved trajectory planning, collision avoidance, swarming, weapon selection, combat damage assessment, and effects coordination). In the cyber and information space, networks and information systems will be configured, maintained, and protected by autonomous AI-enabled agents. AI will also improve learning by adapting in real time to human behavior and creating customized learning environments or scenarios.
According to the STO Report (2020), autonomy is defined as “the ability of a system to respond to uncertain situations by independently designing and choosing various options for achieving goals based on knowledge and contextual understanding of the situation.” As AI-powered machines will increasingly participate in decision-making processes, human-machine autonomy and interaction is a matter of balancing their contributions. Whether or not countries develop fully autonomous systems, semi-autonomous systems are likely to have an impact on operations in the short and medium term.
Robotics and autonomous systems are becoming key tools of warfare. The most obvious one is that robots can take risks that can potentially lead to human casualties. Robots also have capabilities that humans don’t have: the ability to stay awake 24/7, the ability to see from all angles, the ability to process information in an instant, and so on.
Advances in autonomy are likely to affect the future structure of the force, as unmanned air, sea or land vehicles and autonomous software agents increase the importance of human-machine interaction. Unmanned aerial vehicles can conduct reconnaissance and guidance operations on front lines, supply lines, logistics bases, etc. In fact, as recent events have shown, even the smallest commercial drones are already used as weapons in various military conflicts and cause devastating damage. Low-tech drones that can be used as flying improvised explosive devices are difficult for regular armed forces to defend against. Swarming technology allows the use of new sensors and will improve the protection of critical assets. The growing use of dispersed and low-visibility vehicles, such as micro-UAVs, in developing operational areas such as space and urban environments will significantly improve ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and situational awareness. In the field of information warfare, autonomous software agents will increasingly perform cyber missions.
The global economy, military forces, and society as a whole are increasingly relying on space-based systems and technologies, such as satellites used for communications, Earth observation, or navigation. In fact, the number of satellites is expected to increase fivefold by 2030, and 1,100 satellites are expected to be launched per year in 2025 alone (almost four times as many as in 2018). Almost equal competitors of NATO are investing heavily in the development of their space capabilities, as well as working on anti-space capabilities.
NATO has identified five core space capabilities: positioning, navigation, time and speed; integrated tactical warning and threat assessment; environmental monitoring; communications; and ISR, which the Alliance needs to successfully conduct military operations. Small satellites are an example of space technologies related to military capabilities. They operate primarily in low-Earth and medium-Earth orbits and perform military missions that were previously performed by large spacecraft. In the context of NATO, small satellites can support NATO’s dominance in strategic information, provide reliable and secure communications, and increase situational awareness.
Basic hypersonic technologies have been around for decades, but advanced hypersonic military systems are only now being tested and launched. The most notable feature of this new technology is that hypersonic missiles can fly at low altitudes and maneuver in the air, making them virtually impossible to track with modern missile defense systems.
Advanced hypersonic weapons are already operating in the atmosphere at speeds above Mach 5 (6125 km/h). These are ultra-fast and manoeuvrable weapons systems that can be used for fast and long-range strikes against important targets. Due to their speed and manoeuvrability, hypersonic systems introduce an increased degree of unpredictability and create serious problems for counteraction and interception. Several countries, including China and Russia, have already reported successful development and testing of hypersonic weapons. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the Alliance to develop counter – measures, which currently include interceptors, electronic counter-measures and directed energy systems.
Hypersonic missile technologies may also evolve beyond delivering warheads and reach hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft by the 2030s. Hypersonic UAVs may be more flexible for long-range reconnaissance than reconnaissance satellites, and may also include a possible weapons delivery option.
IoT applications in defence help connect ships, planes, tanks, drones, soldiers, and operational bases into a single network. This improves perception, field comprehension, situational awareness, and response time. Advanced computing, artificial intelligence and 5G support seamless data flow across all branches of the military, and this strengthens the command and control structure. In IoT, sensor and computing devices worn by soldiers and embedded in their equipment collect various static and dynamic biometric data.
Advances in quantum technologies will contribute to significant technological advances in the following areas: cryptography; computing; precise navigation and synchronization; perception and visualization; and communication. However, the practical application of new quantum effects still requires deep research.
Quantum technologies can enable NATO’s military capabilities to operate in four main areas of security and defence-related activities. In the field of communications and encryption, cryptographic technologies such as blockchain will pose serious challenges to the existing C4ISR system. Breakthroughs in computing technology will allow the use of very complex methods of encoding encryption and decryption. PNT (position, navigation, time) will significantly improve thanks to new sensitive high-precision instruments that will facilitate combat operations in particularly difficult conditions (for example, long-term autonomous operations under water under ice). Quantum sensor technologies promise to be more resistant to interference and will contribute to the development of anti-stealth and stealth radars, as well as magnetic, acoustic and gravity sensors with significantly enhanced anti-submarine defence capabilities.
Advances in materials, information systems, and the humanities are pushing the boundaries of human physiological, cognitive, and social capabilities. Biotechnology refers to the use of cellular and biomolecular processes aimed at developing new technologies.
Human enhancement technologies are biomedical inventions that enhance, modify, and/or add to the traits or abilities that a person is born with.
Wearable biomedical systems, as well as virtual and mixed reality stand out as examples of the impact of biotechnologies and human enhancement technologies on the planning and execution of operations. Biomarkers and biosensors will significantly improve medical countermeasures and care. Optimized performance of individuals and groups (in cognitive, physical, or life-sustaining areas), along with personalized and virtual training opportunities, will enhance overall military capabilities.
Advances in nanotechnology and synthetic biology are driving the production of new artificial materials with unique characteristics, such as graphene. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, uses computer models and a range of metals, polymers, and resins to create three-dimensional solid objects of almost infinite shape. These new materials are expected to improve reliability and service life, as well as reduce the weight/size of equipment and lead to new devices such as biological and chemical warfare detectors. Additive manufacturing is expected to improve product development by allowing rapid prototyping. It will also allow the production and repair of deployed military equipment on request and on-site. The army also plans to use 3D printing to create the appearance of a military truck from one giant piece.
Technological aspects of modern and future warfare
EDTs make military capabilities increasingly intelligent, interconnected, distributed, and digital in nature. According to NATO’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Bryan Wells, future military capabilities will increasingly depend on:
– Intelligent technologies that will use artificial intelligence and new analytical capabilities;
– Interconnected technologies that will use virtual and physical domains;
– Distributed technologies that will use decentralised and large-scale measurement, storage and computing;
– Digital technologies that will combine the human, physical, and information domains.
As a result, we will see broader intelligent autonomous action, increased importance of cognitive dominance, expanded domains of warfare, and a greater emphasis on precision warfare. Such an action is:
Intelligent offline action. Intelligent and autonomous systems displace and exceed the capabilities of human forces; they will be involved in much more complex processes of decision-making and independent activity. This will lead to competition between battle networks, each of which will search for a combination of effects that leads to a decisive victory.
Cognitive dominance. Quantum technologies will increase the ability to collect, process, and use C4ISR data by significantly increasing the capabilities of sensors, secure communications, and computing, especially in space. This increased reliance on seamless and ubiquitous connectivity will increase the operational importance of targeting such networks (military or civilian) through disinformation, cyber or physical attacks. Moreover, attacks can be implemented long before the conflict begins.
Extended domains. The need to think, plan, and act in a widely dispersed, interconnected, and multi-domain manner will become even more critical to mission success. Combined with big data and quantum technologies, artificial intelligence will expand our ability to use biology, enabling the creation of new personalised medicines and living sensors. Quantum technologies will enable the use of more effective human enhancement technologies in the cognitive, social, and physiological domains.
Precise wars. Directed energy weapons use technology that “produces a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy or atomic/subatomic particles”. Simply put, a directed energy weapon converts electrical or chemical energy into concentrated radiated energy. Unlike other weapons, there is no projectile. Examples are high-energy lasers, high-power microwave devices, and particle beam weapons.
The development of these weapons initially gained momentum in the early 2000s. Although they achieved the desired goal, they were heavy and bulky. However, in recent years, directional energy weapons have become much smaller and lighter.
Advanced technology means that modern weapons with directed energy have many advantages that turn out to be extremely valuable for the military. They are silent and, in most cases, invisible, can hit several targets simultaneously and fire on an almost perfectly smooth trajectory. High-precision directed energy weapons are becoming more common and effective as power and energy storage challenges are addressed.
Preparing NATO for future wars – technological aspects
NATO’s Command Transformation (ACT) plays an important role in conceptualising the future of war and in defining the future military context. ACT identifies future challenges and opportunities for the Alliance to innovate and maintain combat superiority. ACT places great emphasis on maximising the interoperability of NATO forces, thereby also making an important contribution to NATO’s defence planning and capability development. ACT also applies innovation to use ideas, procedures and technologies for the development of the NATO armed forces.
To help NATO prepare and adapt to this changing security environment, NATO Command Transformation (ACT) has developed the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC). The NWCC was confirmed by several NATO bodies, including the heads of state and government of the allies at the Brussels summit in 2021. The NWCC provides recommendations for developing future military capabilities, with a particular focus on the five Warfare Development Imperatives (WDI). The imperatives are as follows:
Cognitive Superiority: Know yourself and potential opponents better;
Multi-level sustainability: strengthening inter-tool relationships and actions;
Projecting influence and power: countering attempts by other actors to shape the environment;
Cross-domain Command: creative actions across domains and beyond the military sphere;
Integrated Multi-Domain Protection: Protects the combined forces from multi-domain threats.
ACT also includes an Innovation Center that supports projects related to NATO. It promotes the collaboration of a community of experts and innovators to solve NATO problems and “project solutions”. On the one hand, states face a variety of viewpoints and approaches (soft assets). On the other hand, they get access to testing tools and environments (physical assets), as well as project results. Sharing costs and pooling knowledge has allowed NATO member states to have some of the most advanced armed forces and become a world leader in niche areas.
Geostrategic competition for technological primacy is intensifying as the pace of technology development accelerates and technology supply chains become more complex. Maintaining technological superiority is essential for the Alliance to maintain robust defence and deterrence. At the Madrid 2022 Summit, the heads of state and government agreed to strengthen the Alliance’s technological superiority in order to maintain NATO’s interoperability and military superiority.
Strengthening the Alliance’s deterrence and defense capabilities will increase the demand for advanced military capabilities and their accelerated deployment. While investment in new and disruptive technologies should increase, the pace of adoption of new technologies should also increase.
Technological innovation and acquisition processes need to be more effectively linked. In this context, NATO plans to explore the possibility of linking the NATO defence planning process with research conducted by STO and DIANA (Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic). A decision on a weapons system or platform can have a profound long-term impact on the capabilities, structure of the armed forces, interoperability, and defence budgets. The Alliance’s allies intend to use the development of future capabilities with the need to have a high-readiness combat-ready force.
Human-machine interaction is becoming increasingly important, in part because the speed at which machines can analyse data is dramatically increasing. Moreover, scientific research will allow to better understand the human mind, which as a result will allow us to make a breakthrough in cognitive warfare. However, this development also requires combining the technical and human domains; the challenges are organisational and strategic and involve selecting the right people to implement and execute them.
The trends in military technology described in this report only superficially reflect the trends that can be identified in the course of the study. Among other technologies, brain-computer interfaces and the militarisation of space are changing the understanding of war as we know it today. Identifying new capabilities and cutting-edge technologies for use in military operations is critical to gaining a competitive advantage.
Elena Larina, Vladimir Ovchinsky
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