Skip to content
Commentary | 13 January 2020

NATO and emerging technologies

Image of Dr. Margaret E. Kosal

Dr. Margaret E. Kosal |Associate Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology

Emerging technologies NATO Euro-Atlantic Security

The current explosion in emerging technologies offers great opportunity – and potential perils – for NATO, with respect to maintaining its competitive technological and operational advantage over adversaries and maintaining interoperability.

After the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) of the 1970s in which the introduction of precision-guided weapons systems changed the operational nature of warfare, new war-fighting concepts were operationalised in the 1991 Gulf War. After countries such as Russia and China analysed the advancement in US military technology and operational concepts, they began developing plans to invest in their own military modernisation plans. As these nations close the gap in US military technological prominence, the US should continue its plans and implement programs for a third offset, an effort to widen this gap by investing in emerging technology, restructuring the military procurement process, and establishing a more efficient and effective fighting force given the re-emergence of great power competition after the end of the Cold War. This could affect NATO in multiple ways – by increasing capabilities available to the alliance or by increasing the technological gap between some allied nations.

While the suggestion that emerging technologies will enable a new class of weapons that will alter the geopolitical landscape – including questions of challenging or changing strategic stability – remains to be realised, a number of unresolved security puzzles underlying the emergence of these new technology areas have implications for NATO. As we look to the future – whether dominated by extremist groups co-opting advanced weapons in the world of globalised non-state actors, or resurgent great powers engaged in persistent regional conflicts in areas of strategic interest – new adversaries and new science and technology will emerge. The extent to which these emerging technologies may exacerbate or mitigate the global security and governance challenges that Russia currently poses, and other nations may pose in the future, to US and NATO allies, will remain an integral question as policy-makers and leaders navigate the complex global environment.

Conceptually, technologies can be seen as evolutionarily, advancing current capabilities or pressing to the bleeding edge and enabling disruptive, revolutionary capabilities developments. However, greater strategic understanding of these game-changing technologies and the development of meaningful and testable metrics and models to help NATO address the challenges of this complex global environment is needed.

The dual-use conundrum applies to all modern technologies, but it has become of greater concern due to the changing strategic environment in which advanced technologies are more widely available. The term dual-use and the dual-use conundrum have evolved to have two related but different meanings. In much of the nuclear security world, ‘dual-use’ refers to a broad demarcation between civilian and military uses. In the realm of emerging technologies, ‘dual-use’ more often refers to the fact that many applications of biotechnology, machine learning and artificial intelligent nanotechnology have legitimate uses in a wide range of scientific research and commercial activity, as well as defensive military uses. However, this technology also has the potential to be misused for deleterious or nefarious purposes. Reducing the risk from misuse of technology will mean consideration of the highly transnational nature of the critical technology required.

Researchers and analysts have suggested that disruptive technologies may ultimately challenge strategic stability as more countries develop advanced technology such as biotechnologically-enabled weapons, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. As nuclear weapons states compete in a technological race to develop these weapon systems, the question of how they may alter or even fundamentally change the nuclear weapons balance emerges. As more nations compete to gain a competitive advantage over their adversaries via technological advances, the security dilemma (whereby actions taken by a state to increase their own security, cause reactions from other states) will become more prominent in the context of emerging technology.

Like other technological breakthroughs of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, such as gene-editing, nanotechnology and the ubiquitous extent of ‘cyber’-everything through information and communications technologies, much of the concern regarding the potential offensive applications of artificial intelligence is highly speculative and based on worst-case scenarios. The technical and operational veracity of scenarios varies highly from the robust, pragmatic realpolitik to dystopian fantasy. Particularly of the industrialised global north, worst-case scenarios garner easy media attention and can inadvertently drive policy decisions. Choices can be made today, and policy can be implemented in the near future, that are likely to shift the balance in favour of maximising the benefits and minimising the negative effects on global security.

The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.