NATO’s Innovation Strategy: Reflections on the NATO Engages Summit

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Hannah Croft


Yesterday’s NATO Engages summit was a 70th birthday to remember.

Sure, there were awkward moments.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, among others, was asked to comment on that Macron interview with The Economist. Zoran Zeev, Prime Minister of North Macedonia, NATO’s newest member, was questioned about spending contributions in light of Donald Trump’s protestations on burden sharing.

During the event’s first panel, too, an audience member pointed out to Gulnur Aybet, Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to President Erdogan, that the S-400 missile cannot integrate with NATO systems, and therefore contributes little to Alliance security.

But outside of the obvious niggling political tensions, the audience were reminded time and again that NATO is robust and, as Defence Secretary Rt Hon Ben Wallace emphasised, “it is not a competition, it is a partnership”. This sentiment was weaved throughout the day’s discussions, with inspiring talks from Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana, who urged us to “embrace and cherish freedom” to secure our future, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who believes “the future for this Alliance is bright”.  

This was a tour de force of the challenges confronting NATO, covering disruptive technologies like AI and hypersonics, hybrid threats emanating from the cyber and information domains, and of course Great Power competition and the evolving political, economic and security ramifications of Russian and Chinese activity in the North Atlantic.

Yet, perhaps one thing missing from the discussions was a mention of the conference theme itself, ‘Innovating the Alliance’. I know what you’re thinking: another defence conference, another innovation theme. Indeed, we at Defence iQ also find ourselves jumping on the innovation bandwagon, but I promise there is good reason to.

The desire, the need(?), to innovate in technology, in leadership, in culture, planning and mission execution is permeating Defence discourse today and it has become a strategy in and of itself. “We must innovate!”. But for what purpose? In what way? In reference to NATO and ‘innovating the Alliance’, there was some insight into what this might mean in practice.

A good starting point might be to consider the context in which the innovation concept was embraced as a cornerstone of Defence/NATO strategy. In his keynote, the Rt Hon Ben Wallace opened with a familiar depiction of today’s world: rapid change, increasing complexity, hybridity, and uncertainty.

He also highlighted new and emerging technologies, such as quantum computing and hypersonic missiles, which challenge established NATO political and operational frameworks.

Against this backdrop, he argued, NATO must adapt and design common approaches to the threats and challenges they face today. Innovation, then, becomes a tool in which the Alliance copes with systemic pressures and technological and geopolitical change; it is the new ‘common approach’ to managing and leveraging complexity.

Jens Stolenberg framed the innovation construct in a similar way. He described NATO as an “agile and active alliance” and, when questioned as to whether we should be celebrating its past or changing to remain relevant in the future, he said we should do both.

A willingness to adapt or change, then, underpins the NATO innovation strategy, and this was highlighted in three distinct ways at the event.

  • Industry Partnerships

SACT General Lanata stressed the importance of partnering with the private sector to ensure that they can keep pace with evolving technologies. Like its members, NATO has woken up to the benefits of working with SMEs and start-ups, not least because their structures are far more agile than larger defence equipment manufacturers and are therefore primed to take more risks in R&D.

Offering an industry perspective, Noam Perski of Palantir Technologies was encouraged by some of the changes made inside the U.S. DOD, describing a “sea change” in acquisition whereby requirements are articulated and capabilities are delivered at speed and at scale.

The issue, he said, was that too many programmes fall under the ‘Innovation Hub’ or ‘Accelerator’ umbrella. What NATO needs to do, to demonstrate its commitment to innovation, is apply these new models for acquisition and industrial engagement to flagship programmes.

Although there is work to be done on the acquisition front, it is worth mentioning NATO’s Alliance Future Surveillance and Control programme (AFSC), the strategic NATO AEW&C follow-on. Camille Grand, Deputy General Secretary of Defence Investment, talked about a taking a ‘smart approach’ to developing the 2035 capability, where technology leaders both within and outside the traditional Defence Industrial Base can contribute to the shaping of this system of systems requirement.

Other issues remain, however. It was mentioned that governments still don’t provide enough clarity on ethics or their intentions for data usage when working with industry – Project MAVEN being one example of military-industry cooperation failing because of a perceived lack of transparency on the military uses of AI.

Perhaps NATO will provide the steerage for how the military can communicate to the public on these technologies in future, or even work to develop a more relevant lexicon for ethics, standards and practice.

  • User-Focused Test and Evaluation

Linked to the discussions about acquisition innovation was that of user-focused capability development. Those on the R&D panel spoke of the need to change their approach to requirements design, and move towards a problem-solving method underpinned by closer collaboration between the warfighter, the engineer and industry.

Described by General Lanata as a ‘bottom up approach’, the objective is to deliver capability much faster and minimise risk by involving the designer and the user at proof of concept.

  • Leadership and Diversity

The NATO Engages audience was diverse in its age and gender makeup – not your normal ‘male, pale and stale’ defence forum – and this was celebrated by many of the senior leaders on stage. Justin Trudeau and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both talked about the need to engage more women in Defence, in particular, noting that “broader perspectives means better solutions”.

Nevertheless, whilst important steps have been made on the policy side, Prime Minister Rutte acknowledged that it is still difficult to get more women in senior military positions and this holds them back.

When thinking about ‘Innovating the Alliance’, perhaps the first priority of any strategy should be the people. Specifically, recruitment and retention inside NATO and its member states must adapt to ensure that, for the next 70 years, a new, more diverse generation of problem-solvers, innovators and disrupters.