How AI Shapes NATO's Technological Advances in Military Operations

Science has played a pivotal role in the operations and strategy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since its inception 75 years ago.

by Faruk Imamovic
How AI Shapes NATO's Technological Advances in Military Operations
© Getty Images

Science has played a pivotal role in the operations and strategy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since its inception 75 years ago. This alliance, initially formed for collective defense, has expanded to include 32 member countries, each contributing to a broad spectrum of defense and civil-security projects. One might wonder, how exactly does science interlace with military operations? According to Simona Soare, a defense-technologies researcher at Lancaster University, UK, "The role of science and technology for NATO is likely to grow significantly over the next two decades."

The primary focus of NATO’s scientific initiatives ranges from assessing the impact of climate change on warfare to integrating emerging technologies to enhance soldier performance. This includes projects exploring how advancements in biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI) could revolutionize the capabilities of military personnel. Bryan Wells, a chemist and NATO’s chief scientist, highlights the organization's commitment to maintaining a technological edge. "We’re looking to make sure that we can provide scientific advice to the nations of NATO to enable them to maintain a technical and military advantage," says Wells.

Operating from NATO's Brussels headquarters, Wells and his team oversee a complex organizational structure. This structure includes both military and civilian components, with the civilian arm headed by a senior political figure and comprising diplomats from member countries. The military side is managed by senior military officers.

Research and Development at the Heart of NATO

Much of NATO's research and development (R&D) is orchestrated through the Science and Technology Organization (STO), encompassing over 6,000 scientists from academia, national laboratories, and industry. These experts collaborate on defense research projects that are funded by both member states and non-member contributions, amounting to around €350 million (US$380 million) annually.

The STO is also home to the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) in La Spezia, Italy, led by physicist Eric Pouliquen. The CMRE focuses on underwater remote sensing and other maritime technologies. Under the civilian umbrella, NATO also provides grants through its Science for Peace and Security (SPS) program, managed by Claudio Palestini. This program supports research in counterterrorism, cyber defense, and recently updated its priorities to include studies on climate impact and hybrid threats, such as election interference and disinformation.

Despite the breadth of its scientific endeavors, much of NATO’s research remains classified, and the organization does not publish a detailed breakdown of its R&D spending by country. Nevertheless, the STO aims to publish its findings in peer-reviewed journals whenever possible to foster open scientific dialogue and collaboration.

How AI Shapes NATOs Technological Advances in Military Operations
How AI Shapes NATOs Technological Advances in Military Operations© Getty Images/Sean Gallup

Navigating Challenges and Opportunities

Expanding Horizons Through Science

NATO's R&D initiatives cover an impressive range of scientific fields. Autonomous undersea surveillance technologies are being developed to identify mines and track submarines. Advanced applications in quantum radar and synthetic biology are also on the agenda, aiming to revolutionize the future of military operations.

One notable program at the CMRE explores how autonomous underwater vehicles can leverage quantum technologies and AI to detect submarines. In another significant effort, the project 'Military Diversity in Multinational Defence Environments: From Ethnic Intolerance to Inclusion' examines the roots of intolerance within armed forces to promote diversity and inclusion within NATO structures.

Further delving into the potential of AI, NATO researchers are investigating how these technologies might improve soldiers' abilities to evade detection. Similarly, biotechnology initiatives are looking into enhancing soldiers' physical and cognitive capabilities through innovations like microbiome enhancements and brain-computer interfaces.

The Critical Role of Climate Research

NATO's interest in climate research underscores its recognition of the significant impacts of climate change on global security. The melting Arctic sea ice, for example, is opening new naval routes, increasing the operational scope for NATO and non-NATO countries alike. NATO researchers are also studying how changes in temperature could affect the security of military installations worldwide.

In recent studies, CMRE researchers have collaborated with international scientists to assess how warmer ocean temperatures could make submarines harder to detect using traditional sonar technologies. At a recent conference, they presented findings that indicate how extreme weather might jeopardize NATO's military bases as global emissions continue to rise.

Another innovative project involved deploying oceanographic recorders in the Arctic Ocean to monitor environmental conditions continuously. These efforts are part of NATO's broader initiative to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, which includes developing methodologies to map greenhouse gas emissions from military activities.

Broadening Membership and Its Impacts

With the recent additions of Finland and Sweden, NATO’s membership has more than doubled since its founding in 1949. This expansion is not only a political move but also a scientific opportunity, increasing the funding and resources available for R&D. More members mean a larger pool of expertise and enhanced capabilities to tackle complex defense and security challenges.

Simona Soare reflects on the historical context, noting that NATO's focus on defense science has evolved significantly from the early days of aerospace dominance to a more diversified technological agenda. This shift has been crucial in maintaining strategic superiority and addressing new-age challenges.

Science as a Diplomatic Tool

The role of science extends beyond just military applications; it has also served as a critical tool for diplomacy. NATO's Science for Peace and Security programme has facilitated collaborations that transcend political boundaries. Paul Arthur Berkman, from the Science Diplomacy Center, recalls how these initiatives have provided a platform for dialogue, even with nations like Russia, until geopolitical tensions caused a freeze in cooperation.

"Open science is akin to freedom of speech. If we turn off open science, in a sense we’re undermining democracy," Berkman argues, stressing the importance of maintaining scientific exchanges to foster international cooperation and trust.