Analysis Technology disruption

From quantum to space: NATO’s top strategic disruptors

NATO’s Science & Technology Organization has highlighted technological innovations that are likely to cause major disruption to the way its member states’ armed forces operate over the next 20 years. Harry Lye finds out more. 

NATO’s Science & Technology Organization has identified data, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, space, hypersonics, quantum, biotechnology and materials are technology areas that are either currently in nascent stages of development or undergoing rapid revolutionary development and will become strategic disruptors in the coming years.

“Technological development in data, AI, autonomy, space and hypersonics are seen to be predominately disruptive in nature, as developments in these areas build upon long histories of supporting technological development,” the Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040 report states. “As such, significant or revolutionary disruption of military capabilities is either already on-going or will have a significant impact over the next five to ten years.

“New developments in quantum, biotechnology and materials are assessed as being emergent, requiring significantly more time (ten to 20 years) before their disruptive natures are fully felt on military capabilities.”

A glimpse into the future of defence technology

The report added that crossovers between these technologies, such as with data, AI and autonomy, would have a strong impact on the development of future military capabilities. NATO also noted the importance of the intersections between data, AI and biotechnology; data, AI and materials; data and quantum; space and quantum; and space, hypersonics and materials as other areas that would influence the development of military technology.

Commenting on the report NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană said: “This report is a glimpse into the future of defence. It will guide research at NATO and our allies, to ensure that we maintain our cutting-edge technology in the years ahead”.

China has, in recent years, made major investments in the field of AI and hypersonics, which analysts have warned could see the People’s Liberation Army leapfrog the US when it comes to military technology. The report acknowledges this, stating: “China, following the release in 2017 of its AI development plan, has also obviously moved quickly to expand the science of AI and explore its use.”

Harnessing emerging disruptive technologies

NATO explains that emerging disruptive technologies largely fit into four overarching themes: intelligent, interconnected, distributed and digital.

Across these themes, the report says, “technologies with these characteristics are bound to increase the alliance’s operational and organisational effectiveness through the development of a knowledge and decision advantage; leveraging of emergent trusted data sources; increased effectiveness of mesh capabilities across all operational domains and instruments of power; and adapting to a future security environment replete with cheap, distributed and globally available technologies.”

NATO believes these emerging disruptive technologies, if adopted, will allow it to keep pace in an increasingly fast-paced world. The report goes on to say: “Alliance forces and a NATO enterprise enabled by emerging disruptive technologies will expand the alliance’s ability to operate in rapidly evolving operational environments, such as space, cyber (including the information sphere) and urban areas.

“However, NATO will be challenged to ensure legal, policy, economic and organisational constraints are properly considered early on in the development of these technologies.”

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