Emerging and disruptive technologies
Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems and quantum technologies are changing the world, and the way NATO operates. These and other emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) 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, establish international principles of responsible use and maintain NATO’s technological edge through innovation.
- For more than 70 years, NATO has stayed at the forefront of technology to ensure the defence of its member countries 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.
- 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 multinational venture capital fund to support innovation throughout the Alliance.
- A year later, at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, all Allied Leaders endorsed the charter for DIANA and unveiled its initial footprint of test centres and accelerator sites. Separately, leaders from 23 Allies have committed to participate in the EUR 1 billion NATO Innovation Fund, the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund, which will begin its investments in 2023.
- The NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies provides external advice to NATO and has issued two annual reports as well as inputs to key NATO EDT strategies and efforts
- NATO is 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?
- Innovation policy – What is NATO’s EDT strategy?
- Innovation in practice – How does NATO foster EDT development and adoption?
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.
NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, which defines the key challenges facing the Alliance and outlines how NATO will address them, reflects this changing context. It affirms that EDTs bring both opportunities and risks, and that they are altering the character of conflict, acquiring greater strategic importance and becoming key arenas of global competition. As a result, Allies agreed in the Strategic Concept to promote innovation and increase investments in EDTs to retain NATO’s interoperability and military edge. Allies will work together to adopt and integrate new technologies, cooperate with the private sector, protect their innovation ecosystems, shape standards and commit to principles of responsible use that reflect the Alliance’s democratic values and human rights. EDTs were also included among the issues of common interest for increased cooperation between NATO and the European Union (EU).
To embrace these opportunities and at the same time counter threats enabled by EDTs, NATO is working with Allies to develop responsible, 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 agenda, an initiative to strengthen NATO both militarily and politically and to adopt a more global approach for the Alliance. 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.
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. It has two main areas of focus: fostering a coherent approach to 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 help protect their EDTs from being used against them by potential adversaries and competitors. These goals are key to ensuring NATO retains its strategic and effective dominance.
NATO’s innovation activities currently focus on nine priority technology areas:
- artificial intelligence (AI)
- biotechnologies and human enhancement
- hypersonic systems
- novel materials and manufacturing
- energy and propulsion
- next-generation communications networks
The Alliance is developing specific plans for each of these key technology areas. These strategies are laying the groundwork for NATO to accelerate responsible innovation and the rapid adoption of modern technologies, in order to improve decision-making and steer transatlantic innovation for defence and security in accordance with Allied values, norms and international law.
Data is a key enabler for all EDTs. NATO is bolstering its data exploitation efforts through its Framework Policy and Strategic Plan. In line with the Strategic Concept’s call to expedite the digital transformation of the Alliance, NATO has also developed an Implementation Strategy for digital transformation.
In October 2021, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed NATO’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy, setting out how the Alliance aims to adapt AI to meet operational requirements, and to accelerate and mainstream the secure and trustworthy integration of AI across a range of Alliance capabilities. The AI Strategy is centred on principles of responsible use for AI in defence, with twin pillars of activities that will help the Alliance fosterdevelopment and adoption of AI as well as protectagainst threats arising from this technology.
In October 2022, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed the next set of policies to continue the implementation of the overarching EDT Strategy, including the establishment of NATO’s Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board and NATO’s Autonomy Implementation Plan. The Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board serves to operationalise NATO’s Principles of Responsible Use of AI, as set out in NATO’s AI Strategy. The Autonomy Implementation Plan drives a coherent approach to NATO’s autonomy protection and development efforts in line with the Alliance’s norms, values and commitment to international law.
To meet the critical challenges of today and tomorrow, NATO directly engages innovator communities on the ground. Through new initiatives and bodies designed to foster innovation in EDTs and protect such efforts from potential adversaries and competitors, NATO plays an active role in cultivating a transatlantic innovation ecosystem for defence and security.
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 is a new NATO body that works directly with leading researchers and entrepreneurs, from early-stage start-ups to more mature companies, to solve critical defence and security challenges through dual-use technologies.
DIANA works by running competitive industry challenges. Each challenge is based on a critical defence and security problem, and asks innovators to develop deep tech, dual-use technologies to help solve it. Innovators that are selected into DIANA’s programmes receive non-dilutive grants (i.e., investment capital that does not require them to give up equity or ownership in their company), and gain access to over 10 accelerator sites and more than 90 test centres across the Alliance. They also have access to a network of mentors (scientists, engineers, industry experts, end-users and government procurement experts) and a community of trusted investors. Lastly, DIANA offers pathways to market both within NATO as an organisation and with NATO Allies.
DIANA launched its first three pilot challenge programmes in 2023. Once fully operational in 2025, DIANA will have the capacity to work 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 tech 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.
At the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, the Fund finalised its list of participating countries, with leaders from 22 Allies signing the Letter of Commitment: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Türkiye and the United Kingdom. Finland also joined the Fund upon its accession to NATO in April 2023.
The Fund is now in the process of formation and will begin initial investments later in 2023.
NATO’s Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board
NATO’s Data and AI Review Board is the focal point of NATO’s efforts to govern responsible development and use of AI. It does this by helping operationalise the Principles of Responsible Use of AI that Allies agreed in NATO’s AI Strategy, including by developing a ‘Responsible AI’ certification standard. The Board creates practical Responsible AI toolkits, guides Responsible AI implementation in NATO and supports Allies in their Responsible AI efforts.
Each NATO country has a member that sits on the Board. These members may be drawn from government, academia, the private sector or civil society – they come from diverse backgrounds to ensure NATO’s approach to Responsible AI is multidisciplinary. External experts are also part of the Board’s expert subgroups, which help fulfil the Board’s core functions – including with a focus on Responsible AI tools, standards and knowledge-sharing.
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 was established in July 2020 and 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 initiatives.
The Group released its first annual report in March 2021, providing four initial recommendations to NATO: improve technology literacy throughout the Organization; establish an efficient 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 delivered in April 2022, 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 NATO 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 report describes how these initiatives are signs of real action towards technological readiness and outlines the EDT-motivated, holistic defence pivot that NATO is ideally placed to lead.
The Advisory Group, whose membership is renewed every two years, continues to provide concrete short- and long-term recommendations on NATO’s approach to emerging and disruptive technologies. In 2023, its deliverables include inputs to NATO’s Quantum Strategy and NATO’s Biotechnology and Human Enhancement Strategy. It also remains a trusted advisor of DIANA, with the Chair of the Advisory Group serving as an observing member on the DIANA Board of Directors.
NATO Innovation Board
The NATO 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. These include:
- Allied Command Transformation (ACT)
- The Consultation, Command and Control Board (C3B)
- The Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD)
- The Science and Technology Organization (STO)
- The Science for Peace and Security Programme (SPS)
- The Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE)
- The NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCIA)
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. The North Atlantic Council has held several technology-focused sessions where Permanent Representatives connect with executives driving technological breakthroughs.
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 milestones in the development of NATO’s EDT policies.
December 2019 – NATO Leaders agree an Emerging and Disruptive Technology Implementation Roadmap with seven original EDT areas: data, AI, autonomy, quantum technologies, biotechnology and human enhancement, hypersonic technologies and space. 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 first NATO 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 on the adoption of new technologies and other aspects of innovation, including education, financing and innovation ecosystems.
September 2020 – The 2020-2022 NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies presents recommendations to the NATO 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, with a focus on the seven EDT areas from the 2019 EDT Implementation Roadmap.
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 the NATO Innovation Fund.
October 2021 – NATO Defence Ministers endorse NATO’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy and the Data Exploitation Framework Policy. 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.
February 2022 – NATO Defence Ministers endorse the first Annual Report on Innovation and EDTs, defining new activities to enhance NATO’s technological readiness, including by adding two new EDT areas: novel materials and manufacturing, as well as energy and propulsion.
April 2022 – NATO Foreign Ministers endorse the charter for DIANA, which outlines its mission and strategy; legal authorities; financial mechanism; governance; and the regional offices, accelerator sites and test centres that will make up its initial footprint. Foreign Ministers from 21 Allies agree the framework for the NATO Innovation Fund.
April 2022 – The NATO Advisory Group on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies delivers its second annual report, on 2021, examining three critical, ongoing work strands aimed at enabling NATO and Allies to adopt new technologies at pace and maintain a technological edge: DIANA, the NATO Innovation Fund and the Human Capital Innovation Policy.
June 2022 – At the NATO Summit in Madrid, leaders from 22 Allied countries commit to participating in the NATO Innovation Fund. (Finland became the 23rd participating country following its accession to NATO in April 2023.) Separately, NATO Leaders unveil DIANA’s updated initial footprint of test centres and accelerator sites across the Alliance.
September 2022 – NATO launches a technology-focused series of North Atlantic Council meetings to engage with senior stakeholders in Allied innovation ecosystems.
October 2022 – NATO Defence Ministers endorse NATO’s Autonomy Implementation Plan and the establishment of NATO’s Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board.
February 2023 – NATO Defence Ministers endorse the second Annual Report on Innovation and EDTs, which outlines NATO’s approach to fostering and protecting EDTs in 2023. The Report adds next-generation communications networks as a new EDT area and determines that data has been sufficiently mainstreamed into NATO lines of effort, including data exploitation and digital transformation, to no longer be considered a standalone EDT area.
February 2023 – NATO’s Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board (DARB) meets for the first time to start the development of a user-friendly Responsible AI certification standard.
February 2023 – NATO announces plans to establish the Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space (APSS) initiative to enhance space-based surveillance and intelligence for the Alliance, which will improve situational awareness and decision-making processes.
March 2023 – DIANA opens its first regional office, at the Imperial College London Innovation Hub in London, United Kingdom.
June 2023 – DIANA launches its first three pilot challenge programmes, inviting innovators to apply to its programmes.