Updated: 22-Apr-2002 NATO Review

No. 1 - Feb 1993
Vol. 41 -

p. 23-27


Dr. Keith L. Gardner
Head of NATO's Defence Research Section

Technology, and moreover progress in technology, is essential to the continued successful defence of the peace by NATO and its member nations. This was shown by the recent Gulf War which served to spotlight the crucial importance of technology in modern military confrontations. The general effectiveness of Allied technology in that conflict surpassed nearly everyone's expectations, and not just by a small margin. The outcome of that engagement was astonishingly one-sided, and this despite a huge Iraqi arsenal and an experienced army.

The message is clear: superior technology has a decisive impact on the outcome of war. This effect is very "non-linear"; that is, a relatively small margin of superiority can completely determine the end result. If one side's tank crews can see 10 per cent further than their opponents, the outcome of a battle may be a nearly 100 per cent victory. It should be emphasized that technology is referred to here in its broadest sense, including the all important human component (i.e., personnel selection and training, the man-machine interface, ergonomics, etc.).

Unfortunately, superior technology does not stay superior. It must be continually and aggressively developed. Most people are unaware that the Gulf War was fought with technology that was 20 years old. It takes a very long time indeed to develop and field new technology, and the "pipeline" must be fed now if we are to avoid possible disaster 10 or 20 years hence.

While most experts involved with military matters would agree that progress in technology is essential, the best approach for achieving this progress is less clear. Since I believe that international cooperation is an important ingredient in any recipe for effective advances in defence technology, I should like to examine the cooperative technology mechanisms which NATO has developed over the years, and to assess their strengths and limitations.

The cooperative development of technology results in benefits in several dimensions:

  • the stimulation of technological progress through the sharing of knowledge and experience, and through the international "networking" of experts and policy makers;
  • the promotion of interoperability and standardization in early stages of development;
  • direct savings and programme acceleration through resource sharing.
The mechanisms associated with technology development under the NATO umbrella are complex. This is necessarily so both because of the extreme range of what constitutes "technology" (i.e., dealing with everything from the human being to the electromagnetic wave); and because of the complexity of NATO itself.

Therefore, for brevity's sake, this article will use a "geological" approach, consisting of a "surface survey" followed by a "core sample". The "surface survey" will of course be a vast over-simplification, providing a rather superficial look at the main features while ignoring many important details. The subsequent "core sample" will examine one representative example in greater detail, which will be the organization with which I am best acquainted, namely NATO's Defence Research Group (the DRG).

Overview of NATO technology development

Figure 1 shows a highly simplified diagram of the technology development structure within NATO. As shown, technology is addressed within three organizations which report directly to the NATO Council: the Science Committee, the Military Committee, and the Conference of National Armaments Directors (CNAD).

The Science Committee is charged with the general task of advancing NATO's "third dimension", that is, civil science and technology within the member nations. This activity complements NATO's efforts in the political and military dimensions.

The work of the Science Committee is centred on its major support programmes: the Science Fellowships Programme; the Advanced Study Institutes and Advanced Research Workshops; and the Research Grants Programme. These programmes provide national scientists with several benefits: the creation of fora for effective interchanges with international colleagues; opportunities for scientist exchanges; and funding for selected research projects. Recently, the Science Committee has taken steps to strengthen its contacts with the Central and Eastern European (CEE) nations. Since its inception in 1957, over 200,000 scientists have participated in Science Committee activities.

The Science Committee is the only organization within the NATO structure which is limited to non-classified civil science. The other bodies indicated in Figure 1 deal with defence technology, both classified and unclassified.

NATO's Military Committee sponsors three technology organizations, comprising two research centres and one technology "network". The two research centres act as technology advisors to NATO's two main military commands.

The SHAPE Technical Centre (STC), located in The Hague, The Netherlands, provides technical and scientific advice to SHAPE (the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). STC has a staff of about 150 scientists, supported by technicians and administrative staff. STC's current programme focuses on three primary areas: force capability and force structure (including the influence of new weapons technologies); command and control; and communications.

The SACLANT Undersea Research Centre (SACLANTCEN), located in La Spezia, Italy, supports the Supreme Allied Command Atlantic (SACLANT). SACLANTCEN has a scientific staff of about 40 persons, with an additional 100 plus technicians. SACLANTCEN's primary activity is in the area of undersea acoustics research. It operates two research vessels including the Alliance, a specially designed 3,200 tonne ship capable of open-ocean operation.

STC and SACLANTCEN operate under Military Budget funding, and are each governed by a Scientific Committee of National Representatives (SCNRs), which review and approve all project activities.

The other primary technology activity under the Military Committee is AGARD: the Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development. AGARD was established 40 years ago, with the goal of promoting aerospace R&D cooperation among the NATO Allies, and stimulating advances in aerospace science. The organization is supported by a director and staff of professionals located at AGARD Headquarters in Paris. AGARD is funded under the Military Budget, and its activities are governed by the National Delegates Board (NDB), composed of high-ranking government and industrial aerospace representatives.

AGARD's nine technical panels (each consisting of 40 to 80 national experts) meet twice each year, in conjunction with technical symposia. Meeting locations are rotated through the nations, in order to improve access by national experts. The proceedings of these symposia are published and broadly distributed.

In addition to symposia, AGARD panels also carry out some studies on specific topics. The panels' areas of focus span the full range of aerospace science, including such topics as aerospace medicine, avionics, and propulsion. AGARD also sponsors an Aerospace Applications Study Committee (AASC), which commissions studies on the use of aerospace technologies for military purposes.

As a means of promoting education on aerospace matters among the nations, AGARD conducts lecture series, and provides funds for a number of consultant visits, as well as other bilateral or multilateral interchanges among the members. Special emphasis in this respect is given to supporting the Developing Defence Industry (DDI) nations: Greece, Portugal and Turkey. AGARD has also recently begun to establish contacts with the CEE nations, with a view to fostering exchanges in the aerospace area.

The third organization which addresses technology development within NATO is the Conference of National Armaments Directors, which is composed of the national officials responsible for armaments procurement within the various ministries of defence. The CNAD coordinates the activities of six main groups: the NATO Army, Air Force and Navy Armaments Groups (NAAG, NAFAG and NNAG respectively); the Tri-Service Group on Communications and Electronics (TSGCE); the NATO Industrial Advisory Group (NIAG); and the Defence Research Group (DRG).

The primary purpose of the CNAD organization is to promote the cooperative development of military equipment. The service armaments groups approach this goal by harmonizing national military requirements, and by fostering the establishment of cooperative NATO development projects. These efforts are supported by the NIAG, whose industrial participants carry out pre-feasibility studies in support of the needs of the other main groups.

The Defence Research Group

In contrast with the other CNAD groups, the Defence Research Group (DRG) concentrates its efforts in the earlier phases of the technology development cycle. It has responsibility for the technology base, as opposed to the development of specific military equipment.

The DRG provides a unique forum for collaborative research, which is simultaneously: NATO-wide; defence-related; government-only; and classified.

The importance of the DRG is enhanced because of the scarcity of effective fora for exchanges dealing with such technology. Indeed, in some cases, it is the only place where researchers concerned with classified technology are able to interact with their international colleagues.

The three primary methods of operation of the DRG's various bodies are:

  • exchange of technical knowledge via expert meetings; seminars, symposia and workshops; publication of technical reports and proceedings; and by the establishment of an international community or "network" of government experts;
  • collaborative research, in which researchers bring together national data and analyses, and harmonize their views in order to produce a common expert report;
  • joint experiments and/or field trials, where nations contribute manpower, equipment, platforms, targets and facilities, and then share the resulting data.
The Defence Research Group's mission is to "exchange information and cooperate on research and technology which might lead to future defence equipment". The DRG also acts as an adviser on science and technology, and interacts actively with the other CNAD main groups and other NATO bodies as required.

The structure of the DRG comprises three levels: the main group itself, composed of research directors many of whom have direct responsibility for national defence research; the Panels and Special Groups of Experts, consisting of national laboratory directors and high-level defence technology administrators; and the Research Study Groups (RSGs), which are manned by national experts at the project level. There are between 700 and 900 participants in the DRG from 14 NATO nations and from various NATO agencies.

The structure and procedures established in the DRG over the past 25 years are aimed at initiating and managing international collaborative research projects, which are carried out within the Research Study Groups (RSGs). The RSGs are composed of working-level scientists and engineers, who carry out task-oriented projects each of which has Terms of Reference and a Programme of Work with an agreed schedule and completion date. A typical RSG includes participation of six to eight nations, represented by 10 to 15 national experts.

The topics covered by the current RSGs are wide-ranging, including such diverse subjects as speech processing, laser technology, military training, the effects of cold exposure on humans, aircraft target identification, computer simulation and modelling, and trustworthy information systems. There are presently 50 RSGs under the Defence Research Group, each dealing with a specific research programme. These are administered by eight Panels and two Special Groups of Experts (SGEs), which have assigned areas of technology or system responsibility. The Panels include: long-term scientific studies; physics and electronics; optics and infra-red; operations research; human and biomedical science; electronic warfare; air defence; and information processing technology. The two SGEs deal with concealment, camouflage and deception; and combat engineering technology.

The NATO structure and the procedures which have been developed during the maturing of the DRG have resulted in an effective environment for collaborative defence research. Member nations are able to set up research projects with relatively short delay since the "prearranged" legal structure provided by the DRG means that activities can be routinely carried out without negotiation of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), thereby saving many months (or even years) in the gestation period for new activities. The NATO International Staff support for the DRG is efficiently organized and inexpensive, consisting of just three staff officers and two secretaries at NATO Headquarters.

The success of the DRG is demonstrated by strong national support for its activities. Participation is of course voluntary, and only those activities which elicit support from several nations are initiated. The fact that so many nations are willing to contribute the time of their best experts indicates that they receive a positive return on their investment. This is particularly true for the smaller nations, some of which rely heavily on the DRG to provide "gearing" or "leverage" for their own programmes.

To date, the DRG has produced approximately 400 major technical reports. It has also sponsored dozens of cooperative field trials, resulting in significant savings for the participating nations (through resource sharing) as well as greatly expanded databases (through data sharing). The DRG has also conducted cooperative component and equipment evaluations, and has developed extensive computer models and analysis tools. The DRG's Panel 1 has carried out over 50 Long-Term Scientific Studies (LTSS), each focused on an aspect of military technology and its implications.

Limitations of the DRG

Besides examining the DRG's structure and strengths, it is instructive to look at its limitations. International cooperation is not always feasible, even (or perhaps especially) in areas of high national importance. The following dimensions are particularly important:

Sensitivity. International cooperation is only possible when the participating nations are willing to share their data and knowledge. If a topic is too sensitive (regarding either security or industrial competitiveness), cooperation is impossible.

Cost. If a project is very expensive and would require significant levels of national investment, most nations would insist on negotiation of an MOU to precisely define agreements. This in turn impedes progress, since the time required for negotiation of MOUs can be substantial. For this reason, most research projects under the DRG represent relatively small national investments. Although the DRG has in fact initiated several higher-cost collaborative projects with formal MOUs, these have so far been the exception rather than the rule.

Stage of Development. DRG activities are also confined to the early stages of the development cycle (i.e., research and exploratory development), where cooperation is easier to achieve (assuming, of course, that cooperation is possible from the sensitivity standpoint). As a project nears production, the likelihood of successful cooperation decreases substantially.

The last aspect considered here is the legal dimension. NATO's pre-arranged framework (coupled with the relatively small national investments involved) allows the national experts themselves to define their cooperative work programmes, without any legal assistance. The DRG approach thus avoids one of the major impediments to successful international cooperation, namely, protracted negotiations on the legal aspects of cooperative agreements. However, this advantage has an accompanying disadvantage: there is a definite limitation to the scope and nature of cooperation possible within the traditional DRG domain.

By way of conclusion, the following observations concerning technology development and defence research as conducted in NATO should be borne in mind:

Cooperation is voluntary. As the NATO nations are sovereign, participation in collaborative activity is completely at the discretion of the individual nations.

NATO technology must adapt to change. Technology has been in a state of breathtakingly rapid advance for the past half-century, and the rate of that advance has itself been accelerating. But in the past few years this factor has been overshadowed by political, economic and military change. This chaotic situation has compounded the problems of those who forecast capabilities and needs in defence technology. I believe this is another area in which the NATO networks can benefit the nations, by establishing critical international contacts and facilitating the exchange of views at all levels. It has now become imperative for the NATO nations to formulate a new strategy for the future of cooperative technology development. The environment has changed, and NATO's technology structures must be adapted to the emerging needs.

The Network is the main benefit. The "linking together" of national research directors, technology administrators and experts from the various nations is a major benefit of NATO's technology cooperation. Indeed, I believe it is the main benefit, outweighing the other advantages of resource savings, standardization, etc. Technology is not developed in isolation, but relies on the intellectual stimulation, inspiration and knowledge sharing which can only be found in a group of experts working in a common field.

Figure 1 : NATO's Technology Development Structure

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1993.