Emerging and disruptive technologies

  • Last updated: 17 Oct. 2022 09:08

Technologies such as big data, 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.

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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.
  • 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 22 Allies 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. The 2020 Annual Report identified concrete areas for the Alliance to focus on as it develops its EDTs strategies – including technology leadership, fostering innovation ecosystems and developing talent. The 2021 Annual Report highlighted NATO’s rapid progress and ambitious approach to maintaining its technological edge, examining the development of DIANA, the NATO Innovation Fund and the Human Capital Innovation Policy.
  • 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?

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 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.

Innovation policy – What is NATO’s EDT strategy?

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),
  • data,
  • autonomy,
  • quantum-enabled technologies,
  • biotechnology,
  • hypersonic technologies,
  • space,
  • novel materials and manufacturing, and
  • energy and propulsion.

The Alliance is developing specific plans for each of these key technology areas, starting with AI and data. These strategies are laying the groundwork for the Alliance to accelerate responsible innovation and the rapid adoption of data and 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.

In October 2021, NATO Defence Ministers endorsed the first two of these strategies: NATO’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy and the Data Exploitation Framework (DEF) Policy. The AI Strategy sets 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 DEF Policy lays out NATO’s vision to achieve data-driven decision making across the Alliance by fully leveraging NATO-generated, national and publicly available data; it enables the delivery of the AI Strategy and NATO’s digital transformation efforts. Both policies are centred on principles of responsible use for AI and data exploitation in defence, and the operationalisation of these principles. Based on these policies, NATO is translating these principles into practice to build trust with the public, the international community, innovators and operational end-users.

In October 2022, Allied Defence Ministers endorsed the next set of policies to continue the implementation of the overarching EDT Strategy, including the DEF Strategic Plan, the Autonomy Implementation Strategy, and the Establishment of the Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board. The DEF Strategic Plan builds off the DEF Policy and is driven by priority Alliance use cases (i.e., situations where the Alliance is leveraging big data to solve problems); it aims to further enable people, processes and technologies that help NATO advance towards its goal of being a data-driven Alliance. 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. The Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board serves as a forum for Allies and as the focal point of NATO’s efforts to govern responsible development and use of AI by helping operationalise the principles of responsible use that were agreed under the AI Strategy.

As the Alliance continues to develop its strategic approach to emerging and disruptive technologies, implementation will focus on responsible use, accelerated adoption and protection against threats.

Innovation in practice – How does NATO foster EDT development and adoption?

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 entrepreneurs, from early-stage start-ups to more mature companies, to solve critical problems in defence and security through deep technologies (i.e., transformational technologies that solve important challenges through the convergence of breakthrough science and engineering).

DIANA will launch competitive Challenge Programmes. Each Challenge Programme will be based on critical defence and security problems and will seek to foster the most impactful technological solutions developed by the best and brightest innovators from across the Alliance. Innovators that are accepted into DIANA will gain access to a network of more than nine Accelerator sites and 63 Test Centres in innovation hubs across the Alliance, and receive non-dilutive financing (i.e., 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 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. The Fund is now in the process of formation and will begin initial investments in 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 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, which is renewed every two years, will continue to provide concrete short- and long-term recommendations on NATO’s approach to emerging and disruptive technologies.

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.  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. The NATO Consultation, Command and Control Board (C3B) and the Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD) provide technical interoperability standards and advise on the development of national and multinational capability programmes to deliver platforms and services that leverage EDTs. NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (STO) also supports numerous EDT-related research projects, including on biotechnology, 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 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 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 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.

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 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.

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. Its initial investments are expected in 2023. Separately, NATO Leaders unveil DIANA’s updated initial footprint of Test Centres and Accelerator sites across the Alliance.

October 2022 – Allied Defence Ministers endorse NATO’s Autonomy Implementation Plan and the establishment of NATO’s Data and Artificial Intelligence Review Board.