NATO Prioritizes Artificial Intelligence in Defense Strategy

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become a critical focus for NATO and its allies, who see it as a top priority in strengthening the alliance’s collective defense.

A summit in Washington, D.C., next week will not only mark the 75th anniversary of the alliance but also concentrate on safeguarding NATO in an increasingly hostile geopolitical landscape. 

The global repercussions of the war in Ukraine have been far-reaching, and the widening gap between the West and major authoritarian adversaries has impacted everything from defense to trade. 

At the heart of NATO’s efforts to protect itself during these challenging times lies the evolving landscape of AI technology.  

The reliance on drones in kinetic warfare has surged significantly in recent times, driving an AI race and necessitating the development of adaptive offensive and defensive strategies.  

“There should be concern about countering Chinese and Russian AI capabilities in wartime, but concern should not be mistaken for despair,” said retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, a senior fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Just as there are reasons for concern in countering Chinese and Russian kinetic weapons — such as hypersonic maneuvering cruise missiles — the U.S. has the ability to build effective offensive and defensive systems to deter and, if necessary, defeat adversary actions,” he added.

In March, NATO more than doubled its tech accelerator sites under a program known as Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), which works to develop “deep technologies” to address the alliance’s defense challenges.

Under DIANA, there will be testing sites in 28 of the 32 NATO nations in a move to support innovation across the alliance in AI, cyber, 5G, hypersonic and autonomous systems.

However, the extensive expansion of AI capabilities means the alliance is also seeking to establish safeguards, especially when it comes to AI use in wartime. 

“There will be doctrinal discussions at NATO on making sure that we don’t have ‘SKYNET’ take over and start engaging in kinetic action without humans making decisions,” former NATO Assistant Secretary General for Defense Investment Marshall Billingslea told Digital. 

“As drones become increasingly sophisticated, while remaining inexpensive, and as people introduce artificial intelligence into drones for attack, there is a need for a comparable level of AI that has to get incorporated into countering UAS [unmanned aircraft systems], as well as theater missile defense capabilities,” he said.

Billingslea said AI is already being used effectively by the U.S. when it comes to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but that is now being expanded throughout NATO.

As the alliance looks to ramp up its collective defense, its AI initiatives are aimed at not only collecting security and intelligence data from all partner nations, but utilizing that intel more efficiently by offloading the human burden of analyzing it.

AI in kinetic warfare is not the only area that has NATO on high alert. 

Propaganda has long played a role in wartime, but the use of disinformation campaigns and malware have become key tools in soft-war operations that can be widely employed using AI, making AI-augmented soft-war tactics a significant challenge to counter. 

“The area of greater concern for me is the use of AI to improve malign influence operations during peacetime or in a crisis buildup,” Montgomery said. “Russia and China have both demonstrated a willingness to operate in the gray zone to a much greater degree than the U.S. and its democratic allies. As a result, Chinese and Russian AI-infused malign influence operations could have a significant negative impact.”

Dependence on Chinese systems has long been , though Beijing’s ties with Moscow has prompted many in Europe to cut ties with Chinese digital infrastructure companies. 

The war in Ukraine has highlighted NATO’s need to safeguard its members and partner nations, particularly non-NATO countries in Europe and in areas like the Indo-Pacific, from threats posed by AI technologies.

“There’s a coalition of authoritarians that NATO has to deal with, and that is China, Russia, North Korea and Iran,” Montgomery said, pointing to how all four have not only positioned themselves against the West but have done so, in part, by backing Moscow with military and economic aid for its war in Ukraine.

“From my perspective, Ukraine is on the front line of fighting all four of these authoritarian regimes. NATO better step up to support it,” he added.