Emerging and disruptive technologies

  • Last updated: 07 Apr. 2022 14:47

Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous weapons systems, big data, biotechnologies and quantum technologies are changing the world, and the way NATO operates. These and other emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) present both risks and opportunities for NATO and Allies. That’s why the Alliance is working with public and private sector partners, academia and civil society to develop and adopt new technologies, strengthen the Allied industrial base and maintain NATO’s technological edge.

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  • For over 70 years, NATO has stayed at the forefront of technology to ensure the defence of its Allies and the success of its operations.
  • In February 2021, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed a strategy on emerging and disruptive technologies to guide NATO's development of EDT policy in specific subject areas.
  • In March 2021, the NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies issued its first annual report, identifying concrete areas for the Alliance to consider as NATO adopts these new technologies.
  • At the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels, as part of the NATO 2030 agenda, Allied Leaders agreed to launch the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and to establish a NATO Innovation Fund.
  • NATO is also engaging with other international organisations, including the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN), to address emerging and disruptive technologies.

  • The strategic context – Why does NATO care about EDTs?

    Emerging and disruptive technologies are increasingly touching all aspects of life – from electronics like phones and computers, to everyday activities like shopping for food in the grocery store and managing money in the bank. These technologies are also having a profound impact on security. Innovative technologies are providing new opportunities for NATO militaries, helping them become more effective, resilient, cost-efficient and sustainable. These technologies, however, also represent new threats from state and non-state actors, both militarily and to civilian society.

    To embrace these opportunities and at the same time counter these threats, NATO is working with Allies to develop innovative and agile EDT policies that can be implemented through real, meaningful activities. By working more closely with relevant partners in academia and the private sector, NATO aims to maintain its technological edge and military superiority, helping deter aggression and defend Allied countries.

    Emerging and disruptive technologies are also a key facet of the NATO 2030 initiative, an initiative to strengthen the Alliance militarily, make it stronger politically and adopt a more global approach. NATO 2030 is about making sure that the Alliance remains ready to face tomorrow's challenges. Promoting transatlantic cooperation on critical technologies is a vital component of that work.

  • Innovation at NATO – What is NATO doing about EDTs?

    In  February 2021, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed “Foster and Protect: NATO’s Coherent Implementation Strategy on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies.” This is NATO’s overarching strategy to guide its relationship to EDTs and has two main focuses: fostering the development and adoption of dual-use technologies (i.e. technologies that are focused on commercial markets and uses, but may also have defence and security applications) that will strengthen the Alliance’s edge, and creating a forum for Allies to exchange best practices that help protect against threats.

    NATO’s innovation activities currently focus on nine key areas:

    • artificial intelligence (AI),
    • data and computing,
    • autonomy,
    • quantum-enabled technologies,
    • biotechnology and human enhancements,
    • hypersonic technologies,
    • space,
    • novel materials and manufacturing, and
    • energy and propulsion.

    The Alliance is developing specific plans for each of these areas, starting with AI and data, which will be implemented by Allies and by NATO’s Innovation Board. In October 2021, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed the first of these strategies, NATO’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy. The AI Strategy centres around principles of responsible use for AI in defence and their operationalisation. It also outlines how the Alliance will adapt AI capabilities and protect Allied citizens against their use.   

    Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA)

    At the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels, Allied Leaders agreed to launch the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) to foster transatlantic cooperation on critical technologies, promote interoperability and harness civilian innovation by engaging with academia and the private sector. DIANA includes a network of more than 10 Accelerator sites and over 50 Test Centres in innovation hubs across the Alliance. The Accelerator works directly with leading entrepreneurs, from early-stage start-ups to more mature companies, to solve critical problems in defence and security. 

    DIANA will launch competitive Challenge Calls based on critical defence and security problem sets, fostering the most impactful technological solutions developed by the best and brightest entrepreneurs from across the Alliance. Innovators that are accepted into DIANA will gain access to non-dilutive financing (investment capital that does not require them to give up equity or ownership in their company). They will also gain access to a network of top-tier trusted investors, business mentorship and education from DIANA’s expert staff, state-of-the-art testing opportunities, and the possibility for development and adoption contracts with Allies for proposed dual-use technologies. 

    DIANA will begin pilot activities as early as summer 2023. Once fully operational in 2025, it will have the capacity to interact with hundreds of innovators each year across an even wider network of Accelerator sites and Test Centres throughout the Alliance.

    NATO Innovation Fund

    NATO Leaders also agreed at the 2021 Brussels Summit to establish a NATO Innovation Fund. The EUR 1 billion venture capital fund will provide strategic investments in start-ups developing dual-use emerging and disruptive technologies in areas that are critical to Allied security. The Fund will be the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund. 

    Many start-ups working on deep technologies (transformational technologies that solve important challenges through the convergence of breakthrough science and engineering) struggle to attract sufficient investment because of lengthy time-to-market timelines and the high capital intensity of their research. The NATO Innovation Fund will tackle this problem by leveraging its unique position as a patient investor with a 15-year run-time better suited to the extended time horizons necessary for deep-tech start-ups. It will focus on early-stage investments (i.e. pre-seed through Series A and follow-on), providing risk capital directly into these start-ups, while also having the ability to invest in other top-tier deep-tech venture capital funds that align with the Fund’s three strategic objectives:

    • to seek out cutting-edge technological solutions that solve the Alliance’s defence and security challenges;
    • to bolster deep-tech innovation ecosystems across the Alliance; and 
    • to support the commercial success of its deep-tech start-up portfolio.

    All NATO Allies currently have the opportunity to opt-in to the Fund, whose list of participating countries will be finalised at the NATO Summit in Madrid in June. The Fund is scheduled to be up and running shortly thereafter, with its initial investments expected in the first quarter of 2023. 

    NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies

    The NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies is an independent group that provides external advice to NATO on how it can optimise its innovation efforts. The Group, established in July 2020, consists of 12 experts from the private sector and academia across the Alliance who have led cutting-edge research, developed EDT policy and managed innovation programmes. These experts provide their recommendations to NATO’s Innovation Board.

    The Group provided four initial recommendations to NATO: improve technology literacy throughout the Organization; establish a network of Innovation Centres; design and facilitate new financing mechanisms for innovation with private sector entities, both small and large; and create innovation partnership initiatives with external EDT stakeholders from industry and academia.

    In its second annual report, the Group examined three critical, ongoing work-strands aimed at enabling NATO and Allies to adopt new technologies at pace and maintain a technological edge: DIANA, the Innovation Fund and the Human Capital Innovation Policy (which contains recommendations for NATO on how to attract, retain and develop talented employees with technical skills and innovation mindsets). The forthcoming report aims to identify the unique features of NATO endeavours in these domains, suggest metrics of success for each, and outline issues and risks that need to be considered.

    The Advisory Group will continue to provide concrete short- and long-term recommendations on NATO’s approach to emerging and disruptive technologies.

    NATO’s Innovation Board

    NATO’s Innovation Board is chaired by the Deputy Secretary General and brings together high-level civilian and military leadership from across the Alliance. The purpose of the Board is to look at new ideas from outside of the Organization, provoke discussion, foster adoption of best practices and secure cross-NATO support for changes that will help NATO innovate. This includes receiving recommendations from the NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies.

    Other NATO innovation bodies

    Other NATO bodies are also invested in the Alliance’s innovation activities, and are driving technological development and adoption across NATO. Allied Command Transformation (ACT) leads capability development for NATO and Allied militaries, and is currently working on a large range of EDT-related projects, including on unmanned autonomous vehicles, military-grade blockchain applications, and artificial intelligence in military decision-making. NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO) also supports numerous EDT-related research projects, including on augmentation technologies for improving human performance, autonomous transport and medical systems for casualty evacuation, and space weather environmental modelling. NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme (SPS), the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE), and the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) are also key nodes in NATO’s innovation ecosystem as the Alliance adapts to and adopts EDTs.

    NATO’s focus on EDTs is strongly linked to cooperation with partners in the public and private sector, academia and civil society. Given that many defence applications of EDTs are developed by or with the private sector, engagement with industry – especially start-ups – is key.

  • Evolution

    NATO has been supporting innovation, both in Allied armed forces and in its own capabilities, since it was founded more than 70 years ago. However, the new wave of emerging and disruptive technologies is creating rapid and large-scale changes – not only in everyday life, but also in security and defence. The timeline below lays out recent milestones in the development of NATO’s EDT policies.

    December 2019 – NATO Leaders agree an Emerging and Disruptive Technology Implementation Roadmap. The purpose of this roadmap is to help structure NATO’s work across key technology areas, and enable Allies to consider these technologies’ implications, for instance for deterrence and defence, and capability development.

    July 2020 – NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg establishes the Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies. The group consists of 12 external experts from the private sector and academia, from countries across the Alliance. These experts provide advice to NATO’s Innovation Board on the adoption of new technologies.

    September 2020 – The NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies presents recommendations to NATO’s Innovation Board, including on innovative technologies that NATO should be pursuing as a priority.

    February 2021 – NATO Defence Ministers endorse NATO’s Coherent Implementation Strategy on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies.

    March 2021 – The NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies publishes its first annual report, on 2020, providing four key recommendations for NATO: improve technology literacy throughout the Organization; establish a network of Innovation Centres; design and facilitate new financing mechanisms for innovation with private sector entities, both small and large; and create innova­tion partnership initiatives with external EDT stakeholders from industry and academia.

    June 2021 – At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO Leaders agree to launch the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and to establish a NATO Innovation Fund.

    October 2021 – NATO Defence Ministers endorse NATO’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy. Seventeen Allies sign up to develop the framework for the NATO Innovation Fund, establishing how it will work in practice. An additional four Allies join this process over the following months.

    April 2022 – NATO Foreign Ministers approve the charter for DIANA, which outlines its mission and strategy; legal authorities; governance; and the regional offices, Accelerator sites and Test Centres that will make up its initial footprint.  Twenty-one Allies agree the framework for the NATO Innovation Fund. All NATO Allies currently have the opportunity to opt-in to the Fund, whose list of participating countries will be finalised at the Summit in Madrid in June.